- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

The Immigration and Naturalization Service said yesterday that it has detained about 400 Muslim foreigners nationwide who had approached the agency for registration.

"A large number of them were out of status," Justice Department Spokesman Jorge Martinez said. "It is the duty and the responsibility of the INS to temporarily detain those who are found out of status."

Those detained were reporting under a program that requires non-visa-holding men older than 16 who are nationals of 18 mainly Muslim countries to be photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed.

Advocacy groups say the number of detainees is much higher than the INS says.

Justice Department officials had said that the majority of those detained were held because the INS could not process unexpectedly large numbers of registrants quickly enough.

The detentions brought a wave of criticism and protest from Muslim and civil rights organizations, especially in Southern California, where the majority of detentions took place. Advocates warned that the detentions might scare visitors away from registering, leaving them open to deportation.

A Muslim advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said it was "dismayed and shocked" at the "arrests, detentions and treatment" of Muslims.

On the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government started the National Security Entry Exit Registration System, targeting all adult male visitors from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Sudan. An additional 13 countries were added to the list in October.

More than 3,000 men from the five countries had to register by Monday evening to have their identities compared to listings in a database of terrorist connections. Those who do not register can be deported.

Another group of more than 7,000 males from 13 other nations Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and North Korea are required to register by Jan. 10.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were added to the list earlier this week. Citizens of both nations visiting the United States must register with the INS between Jan. 13 and Feb. 21.

Mr. Martinez said the INS will continue to hold out-of-status aliens for national security checks and "unless the check turns up anything negative, we will also continue to release them" on bail.

He described the situation in Southern California as "unique, not seen anywhere else in the country."

"Lots of people waited till the last minute, the last date, Dec. 16, although they had 30 days to register," Mr. Martinez said.

Most of those detained were of Iranian origin. Southern California is home to more than 600,000 Iranian exiles and their families.

Mr. Martinez said a large number of those who came for registration on the last day did not have visas. "And everyone who is out of status has to appear before a judge." He said those who do not have papers but are eligible to become legal residents could be accommodated, but "this has to be decided by an immigration judge on the case-to-case basis."

In a recent statement, the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the effectiveness of the registration program.

"The INS is wasting an incredible amount of government resources in rounding up these men," said Dalia Hashad, the ACLU's Arab, Muslim and South Asian advocate.

"It seems unlikely that a hardened terrorist is going to voluntarily register with the government," she added.

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