INS sign-up downtown produces few incidents

Pickets, ACLU on hand as immigrant men register

January 11, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Yesterday's deadline for men from 13 mostly Muslim countries to be fingerprinted and photographed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service passed in Baltimore without the long lines and large-scale detentions reported in some other cities.

But some of those who reported for the "special registration," designed to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks by keeping closer track of visiting foreigners, worried that they might be detained because of paperwork mistakes or expressed confusion about the new regulations.

One Moroccan man who was certain he was required to register was turned away by INS officials, who insisted he was exempt because he passed through immigration in New York Jan. 3 on his way back from a trip abroad. But the officials refused to give him a statement proving that he had attempted to register.

"It's a new law, and I'm not sure they understand it themselves," said Saad Anis, 25, who came to the United States from Morocco as a student nine years ago and now works in Germantown as a software engineer. "It's my life on the line." He said he fears getting in trouble months from now if other INS officials decide that he should have registered after all.

Anis said he considers the registration a "necessary evil" in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, but he questioned how effective it will be. "People who want to harm this country aren't going to register," he said.

Lawyers and legal assistants from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has strongly criticized the new requirements, monitored the registration process yesterday, offering advice to men arriving at the Fallon Federal Building at Hopkins Plaza downtown.

"We remain concerned," said ACLU staff attorney Raj Goyle last night. "The registrants were having to wait quite a while - half a day in some cases - and they were quite confused." He said one man was told by the Baltimore office to report to an INS office in Virginia, which did not appear to be justified by the regulations.

To date, males age 16 and older from 20 countries have been ordered to register, offering proof of address and employment or student status and answering questions from INS officials.

Questions were posed yesterday to some registrants about such subjects as personal credit cards and relatives' whereabouts.

Naturalized U.S. citizens and permanent residents who hold green cards are not required to register.

Because INS feared its offices would be overwhelmed by the registration process, the sign-up has been staggered. Men from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and Sudan had to sign up by Dec. 16. Yesterday's deadline was for men from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen - and North Korea, the only non-Muslim country named so far.

The third registration period, from Jan. 13 to Feb. 21, is for men from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Charges of bias

Civil rights advocates and Muslim groups have called the registration discriminatory and potentially devastating for well-intentioned visitors caught in INS paperwork tangles. More than 400 men were arrested in the first phase of the registration, in most cases because of minor immigration violations, touching off demonstrations by thousands of protesters in California.

At midday yesterday, about 30 local activists protested the registration, marching around the federal office building with signs saying "INS: Stop Terrorizing Our Communities" and "Stop the Illegal INS Arrests and Deportations." They later stood outside The Sun's building on Calvert Street, complaining that the news media have not adequately covered the registration.

"All it's doing is instilling a lot of fear," said Penny Howard, a march organizer, who works as a boat captain for the Living Classrooms Foundation.

Howard said INS is so backed up that a Sudanese friend recently received a green card that was approved two years ago. "People are being deported because INS can't handle the workload," she said.

INS spokesman Chris Bentley said the registration went smoothly, but he could not say how many people have been registered in Baltimore or whether anyone has been detained.

50,000 have registered

He said that since the registration began, more than 50,000 people from 135 countries have been registered, either as they entered the country or at INS offices. Individuals from any country - not just the 20 on the list for the recent sign-ups - may be required to register if their travel patterns or other factors raise the suspicion of INS agents, he said.

Bentley denied that Muslims were being targeted because of their religion. The 20 countries were chosen "because these are the countries where al-Qaida or other terrorist groups have been active, or where the U.S. has other security concerns," he said.

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