Registration for Arabs draws fire

New deadline looms in a controversial program requiring Middle Eastern men to be fingerprinted.

The sun may be glinting off the downtown federal building, but that doesn't make it any more inviting to Pakistani-born Saeed Cheema.

Immigration authorities have requested that Mr. Cheema - a US resident - file paperwork and give a brief interview to immigration officials inside.

But Cheema is hesitant. He's read press reports that, since mid-December, over 1,000 men from predominantly Muslim countries have been detained after registering with US authorities as required under a new law.

"I just want to know, if I go into the building, will I come out?" Cheema asks representatives from the Southeast Asia Network (SAN), who have set up a folding table in the building's shade to advise immigrants of their rights. Ominously, the organization's volunteers are taking down vital details so they can inform relatives if the men don't reappear through the office's imposing doors.

Cheema's anxiety mirrors that of Arab and other Middle-Eastern communities across the US as a new registration deadline approaches.

The program is the latest controversy to highlight the growing tensions between protecting citizens from terrorism and upholding civil rights.

To some, this initiative is evidence that something in that balance has tipped.

Even though most have exited the mandatory interview and paperwork process in no time at all, there have also been allegations of bureaucratic snafus, confusion within the agency, and tales of men escorted to holding cells because the INS didn't have enough staff to process their details. Now, lawyers and human rights groups are calling for increased monitoring by both government and volunteer groups to avert a repeat of similar problems in future.

"A lot of animosity has been created in these immigrant communities nationwide because of overly aggressive INS agents, bad communication, poor handling," says Ben Johnson of the American Immigrant Lawyers Association in Washington.

The requirement that foreign men, from mostly Muslim nations, register with US authorities is part of the Patriot Act passed by Congress last year. It's a key component of a law designed to help authorities prevent terrorism on home soil. For the INS, it's an opportunity to bridge substantial information gaps shown up by the attack on Sept. 11.

Under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), as its formally known, the agency has photographed and fingerprinted men 16 and older from 25 nations who had arrived in the US by last September. They've conducted interviews and rifled through paperwork to substantiate biographical details such as the registrant's place of birth, current address, and job description.

But that's not all. Some who have gone through the procedure say that have they been asked for library cards, video-club cards, and other personal items, leading them to theorize that INS agents want to track what they're reading and watching on TV.

As a third deadline approaches for the program - men from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have to register by Feb. 21 - some who have registered complain that the process, though well-intended, is alienating innocent foreign-born people.

"I lived here as a good citizen - paying taxes for seven years - and where did it get me but suspicion, discrimination, racist profiling, and a week in jail for nothing?" says Iranian-born Bijan Perazdeh, who works for the state transportation authority, one block away from the INS.

Like scores of others, Mr. Perazdeh was detained for five days for an immigration irregularity - overstaying his current visa while the INS processed paperwork for a new one. He was not held, as it appeared to some, because he was a potential terrorist.

"It is amazing to us how different the US has become," says Babak Sotoodeh, president of the Alliance of Iranian Americans. "What do we tell our children? That this is the country of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King run by just laws, or of Joseph McCarthy and irrational fear?"

The INS admits that the process has been cumbersome and uncomfortable for many registrants. But it also says the program has proved to be invaluable to national security. Already, NSEERS has netted 330 individuals who fall into categories from felons to terrorists - including known Al Qaeda operatives - as well as those with past immigrant violations. Of nearly 25,000 registrants nationwide, 1,100 have been found "out of status" for various reasons.

Many observers say one of the reasons the program has caused such confusion and animosity is that there have been - up to now - no uniform guidelines from federal authorities on how to proceed. There is also widespread opinion that the INS is understaffed and unable to process immigrants quickly.

The Department of Justice says it's addressing the complaints. "The next deadline will be much smoother and more efficient," says Jorge Martinez, spokesman for the US Department of Justice. "We have stepped up resources, clarified guidelines for INS agents, and are trying to reach out to these communities in more compassionate ways."

Still, Mr. Martinez says, up until now most registrants have had few problems. "They fill out the forms, have interviews lasting about 15 minutes, and are free to go."

Outside the INS building, SAN monitors contest that assertion. "There are times when we get 15 people signing in and only half that come out," says Raj Cheema (no relation to Saeed Cheem), a spokesman for SAN.

Such varied accounts are confusing to Saeed Cheema, who says he will attend a free seminar by local attorneys before proceeding. "Many of my compatriots think this is not a good idea, but I think it is good," says Cheema. "We don't want to hide. We want to clear ourselves before the government so they know we are good people."

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