Interviews of US Iraqis: outreach or overreach?

With new data-gathering on expatriates, FBI steps up antiterror efforts - but may intensify immigrants' fears.

The questions go like this: Do you support Saddam Hussein? Do you know any Saddam sympathizers? What is your religious affiliation? What are the names and addresses of your Iraqi family members living in the United States?

While Americans catch up on the latest war news after work, many Iraqis living here are finding themselves with FBI agents at their doorsteps.

These are just a few of the questions posed to them in the name of homeland security, as Iraqi-Americans are being asked to voluntarily answer questions about their immigration status and political leanings. But some say the interviews don't feel voluntary - and reflect a growing animosity toward Muslims in America. Others defend the interviews as a critical step in the war against Iraq.

It's the latest antiterrorism effort aimed at keeping America safe - and it took hold quietly when interviews began in earnest last week. Meanwhile, government agents were wrapping up the forced registration of certain Muslim visitors and making plans to detain asylum-seekers from countries linked to terrorism while their cases are pending.

Enforcement-oriented DHS

At the center of all this is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which expanded last month when it folded several border agencies into its already vast web of responsibilities. While experts say it's too early to tell how this new agency will shape up, its general direction is becoming clear.

"The Department of Homeland Security appears to be moving toward a very enforcement-oriented approach," says Wendy Young, with the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children in Washington. "It's viewing the foreign born and newcomers with suspicion, a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach. We need to find that balance between being open to immigration and remaining safe."

Contributing to the problem are contradictory signals from the government, says Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former INS commissioner. For instance, having FBI agents simultaneously conducting interviews and enforcing immigra- tion laws could exacerbate immigrants' fears.

"Clearly it is very important and legitimate for the government to want to get as much information and cooperation as possible from the Iraqi community in this country. That's what law enforcement does: gather information. But they need to create an atmosphere of safety," says Ms. Meissner. "And that's not something they seem to grasp yet."

'We have nothing to hide as Iraqis'

But many leaders in the Arab community say they don't mind being asked to come forward, as long as FBI agents are professional. Some Iraqis, coming from a country where disobeying the government is not an option, are amazed that they can refuse to answer questions.

Indeed, before starting the interviews, FBI agents made a concerted effort to meet with Arab-American leaders and explain what they were after. That's paid off, says Bob Doguim, spokesman for the Houston division of the FBI. He says his office has already talked to a couple of hundred local Iraqis - and no one has been detained on immigration violations as a result.

He adds that the interviews have been "very well received" and are providing important "long-term" information for government agents across the United States.

"People may think that some of the questions sound silly and irrelevant," says Agent Doguim, "but the purpose is to educate ourselves about the region, the people, the culture." From an investigator's perspective, he adds, all the technology in the world can't compare to face-to-face interviews in gathering such information.

Another important part of the processes, says Doguim, is to let Iraqis know that they can and should report instances of retaliation against them.

One Iraqi interviewed last week said he felt it was his duty as an American to participate, and wanted to do anything he could to help resolve the conflict in his native country. "I think within the Arab-American community there are many people who worry about civil liberties and persecution," says Subhi, a graduate student at Rice University who preferred that his last name not be used. "But I was basically eager to let them know our story. I didn't want them to have doubts or questions about our status, and I wanted to resolve any questions they might have. We have nothing to hide as Iraqis."

Subhi was born in Baghdad and moved to the United States with his family in 1985. He said he didn't feel intimidated or uncomfortable during the interview, and viewed it as a kind of governmental outreach program.

"It's creating an open dialogue with people who I feel are looking to act in America's best interest," says Subhi.

In face of fear, a question of morality

But Annette Lamoreaux, East Texas regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union, sat in one of the interviews last week when an Iraqi woman was being questioned, and she saw it differently.

"With each question, I felt more and more embarrassed to be an American. I mean, this is not my America," says Ms. Lamoreaux, who advised the frightened woman being interviewed not to answer most of the questions. "These interviews may be legal, but I find them morally offensive."

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