Registration rules puzzle, anger Pakistanis in U.S.

Crowd at embassy in D.C. hears explanation of new INS regulations

January 05, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Rahmat Ali stood at the back of the ornate room at the Pakistani Embassy, listening to an overflow crowd of his fellow Pakistanis express confusion and resentment at a new requirement that men from their country report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to be questioned, photographed and fingerprinted.

Ali, 33, who manages a sub shop in Durham, N.C., had risen at 5 a.m. to drive to Washington with his wife, infant son and two Pakistani friends to hear embassy officials explain the regulations, the federal government's latest effort to track foreign visitors and prevent a repetition of the Sept. 11 attacks. He believes that his visa is in order, but he had heard disturbing news reports of men arrested because of paperwork mix-ups, and he wanted to be sure.

"I don't know why they're doing this," Ali said, holding his squirmy 1-year-old son, Zain. "Pakistan is a good friend of the U.S. We are an ally in the war on terrorism. But they don't treat us as allies."

From California, where thousands of Iranians have protested the detention of men who tried to register, to Maryland, where international students fear they could be tripped up by immigration paperwork, citizens of the 20 countries designated for the INS' "Special Registration" are nervous and angry. Nineteen of the 20 countries are predominantly Muslim; the exception, North Korea, has very few nationals on U.S. soil.

The latest round of registration includes Pakistanis - the largest group of foreigners required to register and the one complaining most vehemently.

"We feel Pakistan does not belong on this list," Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi told the 200 people who jammed the meeting room yesterday. "Pakistan is a front-line member of the international coalition in the war against terror and has made more sacrifices than any other country. In return, people in Pakistan are somewhat mystified that nationals of Pakistan are being subjected to discriminatory treatment."

Walking a fine line, Qazi assured the crowd that his government is protesting the new rules to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other top officials but urged compliance by Pakistani men who are required to register. "All of us ... affirm that the United States has the right and obligation to make its national security its No. 1 priority," he said. "But it should not be the only priority."

The Justice Department has prohibited INS officials in Baltimore and elsewhere from commenting on the registration. But Justice spokesman Jorge E. Martinez said the complaints and fears are unwarranted.

"We're doing what the American people want us to do and what the law requires," Martinez said. Foreign visitors with valid visas need not worry, he said.

Martinez said the 20 countries were chosen not on the basis of religion or race but because intelligence collection showed a presence in them of al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations. Al-Qaida is believed to have numerous cells in Pakistan, and some officials think Osama bin Laden is hiding there.

While the registration has attracted little attention from U.S. news media, it has been front-page news in Pakistan and other countries, where it has been portrayed as the latest evidence of American mistreatment of Muslims. The reports have noted that Armenia, a predominantly Christian country, was listed by the INS for registration and then removed after Armenian-Americans lobbied against its inclusion.

Advocates for immigrants' rights have denounced the registration as unfair and useless for catching terrorists. On Dec. 24, a coalition of Arab and Muslim groups filed suit against Attorney General John Ashcroft and the INS to block the detention of men who come forward to register.

Under the rules, registration is required of males 16 and over who are citizens of the designated countries and do not hold the "green cards" issued to permanent U.S. residents. They must report to local INS offices to be photographed and fingerprinted. They must offer proof of address and work or student status and answer questions.

The first round of registrations was required by Dec. 16 for an estimated 3,000 men from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria. The second round, with a Jan. 10 deadline, includes nationals of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, with the INS expecting about 7,000 men to register.

The third round, scheduled for Jan. 13 to Feb. 21, covers citizens of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, a group that officials say numbers about 14,000.

The Pakistani foreign minister summoned the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad on Monday to express his country's "deep sense of disappointment and concern" at his country's inclusion. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported that Pakistanis in the United States are "living in fear" because of the rules.

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