INS chief defends plans for roundup

Targeted foreigners a danger, he says

February 12, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - James W. Ziglar, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, heatedly defended yesterday a new U.S. plan to round up 314,000 foreigners - beginning with nearly 1,000 individuals from the Middle East and Pakistan - who have defied orders to leave the country.

In his first public comments on the issue, Ziglar said in an interview: "I have no sympathy for them, and I make no apologies for the way we are going about this.

"Some of these people are criminal aliens, and we know how dangerous some of them may be," he said. "Where they truly reflect a danger, we are going to find these people, no question about it. What we're doing has nothing to do with racial profiling or anything else."

The INS and the Justice Department have been criticized recently by civil libertarians and lawyers who argue that the Bush administration has decided to select foreigners to detain, deport or charge with crimes based solely on their religion or ethnic background.

The agency has also come under fire for holding nearly 1,000 foreign nationals on what critics say are negligible or minor immigration violations, such as expired travel visas.

Yesterday, Ziglar said neither argument was valid.

The nearly 1,000 foreigners the agency is looking for are felons, Ziglar said - many of them people the INS believes have a connection to terrorism. They are predominantly from the Middle East and Pakistan.

Once the search for that group is under way, Ziglar said, the agency will broaden its hunt to include 6,000 foreigners from countries that are believed to be al-Qaida strongholds, followed by the remainder of the 314,000 foreigners. All 314,000 have been ordered to leave but are thought to still be in the United States.

"If the question is, what do you do in terms of the order of priority," Ziglar said, "common sense tells me you [go after] those people you consider the greatest risk to the country."

INS officials said the agency plans to examine each case in the event that a person has died, has had a change in status, has never received a deportation notice or has left the country.

Agency officials said the names of the others will be entered into an FBI-run national database that all law enforcement agencies can access. Some on that list might then be picked up on a traffic stop or while trying to renew a driver's license, even if they flee their known addresses.

Ziglar, 56, who has held the top INS post since August, said he believes the agency should have done this years ago.

"Shame on us, shame on the INS for letting that go on for so many years," he said. "[The agency] has not served the American people well."

The new search for foreigners who have defied orders to leave is in addition to the apprehension of nearly 1,000 other foreigners who have been detained, some since mid-September, on immigration violations. Most of those detainees are being held for overstaying their visas.

Ziglar said the agency has let go all but 200 of that group and plans to release more in coming weeks. He denied that the agency "is holding these people as some kind of punishment" or that their violations are trivial.

But such advocacy groups as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have roundly criticized the agency for arresting them.

More than 7 million people, most of them from Latin America, are believed to be living illegally in the United States. Lawyers for many of the incarcerated foreigners say their clients were picked up simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sohail Mohammed, a lawyer representing 12 detainees, eight of whom are in custody, said one of his clients was apprehended when he approached a police officer to ask for directions when he got lost in Newark, N.J.

Another was taken into custody, Mohammed said, after he ran into FBI agents while he was walking up the stairs of his apartment building. The agents were looking for someone else, he said.

Both have been jailed since September, Mohammed said.

"Not a single one of the almost thousand [detainees] has been charged or held as a material witness," he said. "We're going on a fishing expedition, hoping we'll find some person somewhere who knows something. It's totally un-American."

Ziglar insisted that the agency "has a number of criteria on which we detain people" and said the INS has no reason to apologize to those who have been cleared and released.

"I am a civil libertarian; I have always been a civil libertarian," Ziglar said. "I don't come to this from some unschooled, un-thought-through approach. I don't defend things lightly when civil liberties are concerned.

"But this is a situation where I don't think we are acting improperly. The press keeps spinning this like this is racial profiling, some kind of nefarious thing. And it's not."

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