When Mohammad Ferdous Bin Zaman turned on the TV to find out about the weather, he could not believe what he heard.
Bangladesh became the latest nation, along with Indonesia, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait, to join the list of 25 countries whose male citizens must register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they intend to stay in the United States
"Why Bangladesh?" asked Bin Zaman, 24-year-old Bengladeshi student who now lives in Astoria, Queens. "We don't have a past record of terrorist activities."
The special registration applies to all U.S. visa holders including international students, immigrants whose permanent resident status are pending and undocumented immigrants. Women, green card holders, naturalized U.S. citizens and those who have political asylum are exempt.
The first registration deadline ended up with a massive arrest of immigrants in Los Angeles last December. Although no similar arrest was reported in New York City, immigrant communities here are nervous.
"All of a sudden we got a lot of work to do because we have clients who are petrified," said Jo Anne C. Adlerstein, head of the immigration law practice at Proskauer, Rose.
In some cases, Adlerstein encouraged her clients to leave the country before the registration date because they might be detained for over-staying their visas or other criminal records if they register.
"We had one client from Tunisia who went back last week before the [second] deadline and a number of Pakistani clients are evaluating their options," she said.
Some Pakistani immigrants decided to move out of the country altogether before the third registration deadline on February 21.
"This definitely bred fear, intimidation and confusion on the part of many affected," said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director at New York Civil Liberty Union. "There are so many who just don't understand: why them?"
By next month's deadline more than 24,200 men through out the country are expected to be registered, fingerprinted and photographed, according to an Associated Press report. One Lebanese citizen who has already registered said that he felt "humiliated having to go through the interrogation and the whole process."
Jorge Martinez , a U.S. Justice Department spokesperson, has said that the registration system is meant to protect the United States and the countries on the list are places that harbor terrorist organizations. "It's all based on national security," he said. "It has nothing to do with race or ethnicity."
"[Bagladeshis] are very peaceful people," Bin Zaman said. In fact President George Bush had once cited Bangladesh as a tolerant, moderate and practicing democracy with Muslim majority.
North Korea aside, most countries on the list are ones with a large Muslim population. "It's an extreme example of racial, religious and ethnic profiling," said Lieberman.
Critics also doubt that the registration would prevent future terrorist attacks and point out that some of the 19 hijackers were registered with the INS as students. "How do you know if somebody is a terrorist who has been here in a sleeper cell for 10 years? How do you know that they're not already a citizen?" Alderstein said.
Some immigrants are concerned about what will come after registration. "I don't know what they will do next, " said Kabir, a 26 years old Bangladeshi who lives in Jamaica, Queens. " I fear maybe two months after registration, they will send us all letters saying that there are no jobs available, the economy is going down, and that there is no need for us to be here and we should leave."
Immigrant groups such as the New York Immigration Coalition, the Coney Island Project and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund have arranged protests against the registration program. But at the same time they conduct workshops on how to deal with it because there is no alternative for immigrants who want to remain in the country.
"I would not recommend that you would stay in the country past the registration date without registering," Alderstein said.
'I'm going to register," said Kabir. " Whatever they ask me to do, I'll do it."
- Registration deadline: December 16, 2002
- Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria
- Registration deadline: January 10, 2003
- Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen
- Registration deadline: February 21, 2003 (extended to March 21)
- Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
- Registration deadline: March 28, 2003 (extended to April 25)
- Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt Jordan and Kuwait
Learn more at http://www.ins.usdoj.gov/graphics/lawenfor/specialreg/index.htm
In response to the Special Registration, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has produced informational alerts in Korean, Urdu and English and provided free legal advice by telephone.
If you believe that this new registration rule applies to you, You can get free, confidential advice from Sin Yen Ling, a lawyer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 212-966-5932 extension 213.
Learn more at http://www.aaldef.org/news.html
An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai.