Within hours of the US invasion of Iraq, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began interviewing thousands of Iraqi-born immigrants throughout America hoping to find potential terrorists and spies. Some of those interviewed the FBI determined to be living in the United States without legal immigration status and promptly arrested them (The FBI would not say how many).
It was to make easier just such a war-time crackdown that the federal government late last year began implementing a new program called Special Registration.
When the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced the special registration program in October, it required that all males 16 or older residing in the United States who are citizens of Iraq and four other nations (Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria) "register" with the agency — which meant showing up in person, being interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed.
A month later, the feds added citizens from 13 more countries, including North Korea, to the list. Then a month after that, they added two more, Pakistanis and Saudi Arabians; then a month after that, five more. All together, immigrants from 25 countries (24 of which are predominantly Muslim) were required to participate in the special registration, and given a series of deadlines by which they had to do so.
By the time the first deadline rolled around in December, word had spread among immigrant communities that thousand of immigrants who had dutifully registered had been detained and issued notices of deportation.
The United States Justice Department maintains that the special registration program is meant to protect the United States from terrorist groups, which have bases of operations and actively recruit from the nations on the list.
The need for a centralized tracking system of foreigners, the program's advocates say, was prompted by the September 11 attack; the 19 hijackers who flew airplanes into the Word Trade Center and the Pentagon all had entered the country on student and tourist visas.
But others argue that the program has gone beyond any reasonable security measures.
"Why Bangladesh?" asked Mohammad Ferdous Bin Zaman about his native country's inclusion on the list. "We don't have a past record of terrorist activities. The people of my country are very peaceful. I never thought they would add Bangladesh".
Whatever the intended effects of the special registration program, there are already deep consequences among immigrants in some neighborhoods of New York City. On some blocks, one shop after another has suddenly been shuttered. Some are so fearful of having to register that, though they had lived in the United States for many years, they have abruptly decided to move.
IMMIGRANTS DURING WARTIME AND INTERNMENT CAMPS
The registration program is not something thought up by the Bush administration. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued a proclamation branding as "enemy aliens" Japanese and Japanese-Americans, and also immigrants from Germany and Italy who had not become American citizens, and requiring them all to register and apply for certificates of identification. Approximately one million registered.
What followed was one of the most embarrassing chapters of American history. Thousands of Japanese, German and Italian aliens were sent to internment camps throughout the country. While no US citizens of German and Italian descent were put in internment camps, many were regarded as "potentially dangerous," and some were forced to move to a different part of the country. No distinctions were made, however, between Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans who were US citizens. Both were sent to the internment camps.
More than four decades later, the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that Japanese internment was " motivated by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a failure of political leadership." In 1988 President Ronald Reagan apologized for "a grave injustice" imposed on Japanese Americans during WWII. Each victim was entitled to $20,000 in reparations, but many were already dead.
Is this new registration program, some ask, repeating the same mistake?
"It echoed something from our own experience in 1941," John Tateishi of Japanese American Citizens League told the San Francisco Chronicle recently. "It's really about racial identity and racial profiling."
Jorge Martinez, a spokesman for the Justice Department, has said that contemporary comparisons to the Japanese internment camps were "ridiculous."
The current special registration program exempts naturalized US citizens and legal immigrants — green card holders. Viewed as unlikely to pose a security threat to the United States, women are also not required to register. Until last week, political asylum seekers were also exempt.
The special registration program is a requirement for 1) foreigners who are here on a temporary basis, such as international students and professionals holding work visas 2) immigrants whose permanent resident status is pending and 3) undocumented immigrants.
"The Japanese individuals were put in internment camps for no reason whatsoever," Martinez said. "These individuals who were detained — mind you, temporarily — were people who violated the law. Anyone who violates the law is subject to the penalties."
On any given day, it is not uncommon to wait in line for several hours to do business with the federal immigration agency. But on January 10, the deadline for the second group required to register, immigrants swarmed the Federal Plaza building. More than 400 people were waiting to register from 8 am until 6 o'clock the next morning, according to Norman Eng of the New York Immigration Coalition.
"The INS does not have the resources to be processing huge numbers of people like this. They had to take officers away from other departments," Eng said. Adding to the chaos, most immigrants did not have lawyers to consult about the process. "A lot of them had no clue about whether they even really needed to be there," Eng said. " We were there to give information to people about their situation."
Once the waiting was over, immigrants were called into an interview room. "The officer interviewed me for 25 minutes. They asked me about my immigration status, employment, my family and other personal information. Then I was photographed and fingerprinted," said a Lebanese citizen. "I felt humiliated having to go through the interrogation and the whole process."
Most immigrants were let go after officials found no criminal records or any violations of immigration status. Some say that it does not make sense to put so many law-abiding immigrants through the registration process.
"It's a waste of law enforcement resources that clutters the government with useless information and distracts law enforcement officials from pursuing individualized suspicion of wrong doing," said Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director.
Immigration officials argue that this information is going to be used to track criminals and future terrorists. So far 46 immigrants are charged with crimes and 1, 745 detained on minor immigration violation.
If immigrants fail a background check, they must go through an interrogation process. On January 10, one of Eng's clients was detained.
"We went upstairs with one of the clients. They told us just wait outside, 'we'll be back in ten minutes.' They took him inside through the doors. Fifteen minutes later they came out with the guy's belongings in a plastic bag and told us 'we're detaining him,'" Eng said. "They said he was a criminal alien."
The man was found guilty of what his attorney calls "a minor criminal violation" (declining to specify what) but the immigration agency could not gather enough evidence to issue him a deportation notice. He was released the next day.
At six o'clock the morning on the day after the second deadline, the agency was not able to complete the process of running through all the different background checks. To get people out of the building, they issued new appointments and announced one-month deadline extension for the third and fourth groups.
There is some indication that the chaos will not end anytime soon. The Immigration and Naturalization Service itself officially went out of business on March 1, replaced by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Service which was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, but had been moved to the new Department of Homeland Security. New name or not, the lack of staff and resources continues to paralyze the agency. As each of the deadlines approach, hundreds of immigrants are kept waiting to register in the frigid weather for hours.
The deadline was extended in part to give undocumented immigrants a chance to comply with the law. By far the most affected, undocumented immigrants find themselves in a catch-22. If they register they risk being detained for violating immigration law. If they do not register, they are breaking another law and become deportable.
According to a new estimate, New York has more than 400,000 undocumented immigrants. (Nationwide there are estimated to be 7 million.)
"There are a sizeable number of undocumented people who are affected by this policy," said Surav Sakara of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "They either are detained or they're served with notices to appear, which start their deportation proceedings."
Undocumented immigrants who choose not to register will continue to live in a situation that has become increasing risky. In the past, an executive order issued by then Mayor Ed Koch discouraged the New York Police Department from collaborating with the federal immigration agency. Police officers were not allowed to ask any suspects about their immigration status. Lacking resources, personnel and official support, the immigration agency left New York's undocumented immigrants alone.
But "that's changed," said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Last August the federal government allowed local police to enforce immigration law for the first time. Many stories have emerged from many immigrant communities saying that the city police department has acted more and more in conjunction with the immigration agency.
"A man named Malik Muhamad was stopped by police officers while walking back from work," Bobby Khan of the Coney Island Avenue Project, an immigrant advocacy group, alleged. "They asked him about his immigration status but he refused to answer so they beat him."
City Councilmember Kendall Stewart, chair of the immigration subcommittee, said that he received similar complaints from his constituents in District 45. "Pakistani groups are being profiled, singled out and stopped by police more frequently than anybody else," he said.
So far Mayor Michael Bloomberg has not expressed his position on using the local police force as an extension of the immigration agency, but New York City Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Sayu Bhojwani has said that the Bloomberg administration is exploring ways to keep Koch's executive order in place without interfering with the federal law.
While public officials are figuring out what to do, many undocumented immigrants are convinced that going to register equals being deported. Nationally, according to the US Department of Justice, more than 4,825 of the 88,989 immigrants who have registered now face deportation.
LEAVING THE CITY
In a single immigrant household, there are often people with different types of immigration status; a son can be a citizen, a father undocumented. Fearful that family members could be detained and, hence, separated, some immigrant families have decided to move out of the country altogether.
Jo Anne C. Adlerstein, head of the immigration law practice at Proskauer, Rose said that in some cases, she has encouraged her clients to leave the country before the registration date.
"We had to put the issue on the table in black and white," said Alderstein. "If you're going to register, you're going to be locked up. If you go home before the registration date, the likelihood is you're going to get out of the United States. Can we get you back? I don't know."
As the third registration deadline approached, a sizeable number of Pakistani immigrants fled to Canada to apply for political asylum, according to aid workers and US-Canadian border officials.
""My kids come home from school and say, 'my friend, Imad, left with his family to go to Canada. Why did they go to Canada?" and I say "Oh, because his father got a good job up there,' " said one Pakistani immigrant.
On Coney Island Avenue, where most Pakistanis live, business is slow. "Some people just up and left, " said a spokesman from the Council of Pakistani Organizations. "There was a barber shop here and one day it was just closed and the owner never showed up."
Immigrant advocacy groups have been taking to the street to protest the registration. At the same they are conducting workshops to help inform immigrants about the laws. There are not many choices.
"At this point the majority of people we talked to decided to leave because they don't want have to live with the type of treatment they've been dealing with," said Sin Yen Ling, a lawyer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"There are no lively gatherings in any Bangladeshi restaurants, as there were prior to announcement of special registration," reported the Weekly Thikana, a Bengali newspaper. "Many are saying 'We may not meet again. We are ending our days of expatriate life.'"
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.
Last Updated (Mar 21, 2012)