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Detentions Spark Protests

A protestor at the Federal Plaza in New York seeks to make sure imprisoned immigrants are not forgotten   Photo by Fred Askew

Immigrants won a major victory in January when a District Court judge ruled that the US government may not deport Somalis. The decision dealt a setback to Bush administration policies of sweeping detentions and deportations of immigrants from Arab and Muslim nations. 

In her decision, Judge Marsha Perchman said the government had failed to demonstrate a link between international terrorism and Somalis in the US not charged with terrorism, and noted that deportees' lives would be endangered, as the war-ravaged country has no government to receive them.

Meanwhile, a new Department of Justice (DOJ) program, National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) targets men from a list of mostly Arab and Muslim countries. Males over 16 from 25 countries who are on non-immigrant visas must report to local Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offices by specific dates or else face deportation. All of the countries announced to date are Muslim or Arab except North Korea.

On December 16, 2002, approximately 500 mostly Iranian men were arrested as they went to register at the local INS office in Los Angeles. News reports indicated that detainees were denied access to counsel, deprived of food for more than 24 hours, and forced to sleep on cold floors. Most of those detained had INS applications pending that had not been processed due to an INS backlog. On January 8, DOJ spokesperson Jorge Martinez confirmed that all except 23 had been released.

Civil rights and social justice organizations around the country have condemned NSEERS, calling it selective enforcement and racial profiling.

The Iranian men were given just a month to register, the DOJ launched no press campaign to spread information, and materials announcing the new requirements were not translated into appropriate languages. When the materials were finally translated into Arabic, some weeks after the program was announced, a critical error in the translation contributed to the already rampant confusion about who was required to register and when.

The detentions in LA were the largest group of arrests in connection with the registration program so far, although attorneys estimate that there have been over 1,000 such arrests nationwide. The arrests caused mass panic within Muslim and Arab communities around the country.

“Muslims believe this is the first part of a greater plan, and [the government] is gradually raising the bar, checking the tolerance of the community,” said Faiz Rehman of the American Muslim Council.

The arrests sparked protests around the country. In Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Passaic County, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Detroit, hundreds of protesters gathered to denounce the program.

Anti-war protesters across the country have also been calling for a stop in the erosion of civil liberties—including the detention of immigrants, deportations, and racial profiling.

More than 1,200 people, mostly Arabs, were detained immediately after September 11, and thousands of Muslim and Arab men were interviewed. None of these efforts has revealed links to terrorism or terrorist activity.

In response to growing criticism of the NSEERS program, Senators Feingold, Kennedy and Conyers have sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft urging suspension and review of NSEERS.


Pramila Jayapal is executive director of Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington. See also her article Speaking for Justice.

For more information on immigrant rights, see: the

American Immigration Lawyers Assocation, www.aila.org

Hate Free Zone of Washington www.hatefreezone.org

Arab American Institute, www.aaiusa.org, offers information about crackdown on Arab Americans, quick e-lobbying, and a number of publications

ACLU, www.aclu.org, offers a wide variety of information on privacy, liberties, and the crackdown on immigrants after 9/11, plus e-lobbying, and publications on your legal rights.

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, www.adc.org, offers advocacy and information on how to report an incident of discrimination and on the NSEERS program; a list of experts on Arabs, the Middle East, and Islam; links to mideast news; and e-lobbying.

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