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Stretching the Law to Exclude Arabs

April 12, 1987|ABDEEN JABARA | Abdeen Jabara is the president of the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

It is astonishing and frightening to watch our government's relentless efforts to deport nine Los Angeles-area residents on the flimsiest of grounds. The eight Jordanian nationals, and the Kenyan wife of one of the men, were rounded up last Jan. 26 and held without bail for almost a month before a judge ordered them released pending a deportation hearing April 28. Now the government is fighting to get them back in jail. The astonishing and frightening part is the government's assertion that it does not have to reveal why the nine are targeted, beyond allegations that they proselytized on behalf of a small Marxist faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Observing the constitutionally protected rights of foreigners in this country has never been a strong suit of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And this case might seem just another routine INS squeeze--but for its uncanny resemblance to a secret agenda shaped at the highest levels of the government.

During the course of this case, it was revealed that the INS has drawn up a set of plans to move against certain foreign nationals. The plans were drafted last year in response to recommendations of the Vice President's Task Force on Terrorism--drafted, in other words, under directives from an Administration desperate to put up a good public-relations front in the face of terrorism. The same desperation that led the Reagan Administration into the moral morass of the Iran arms scandal has prompted it to cut corners on constitutional rights.

The INS plans read like a script for the Los Angeles case. They advise that "alien undesirables and suspected terrorists" be deported on charges of technical visa violations if criminal charges cannot be brought. None of the nine arrested was charged with a criminal offense; seven were charged with overstaying their visas.

The plans also advise that government prosecutors request the denial of bond for "national security" reasons and that evidence to back up such requests be submitted in camera. The nine were initially denied bond as national security risks, and at the bail hearing on Feb. 17, an INS attorney insisted that evidence be reviewed privately in the judge's chambers, on orders of Atty. Gen. Edwin I. Meese III. The immigration judge, to his credit, refused, and ordered the nine released.

INS Commissioner Alan Nelson has denied that the plans are official policy. But he cannot deny the uncanny resemblance between procedures outlined in the secret plans and procedures followed in this case.

What else do the secret plans say? They detail an INS response to a hypothetical order by the President or State Department to intern a "target group" of several thousand people in a detention facility in rural Oakdale, La. Tents, cots and fencing are ready, and if Oakdale proves too small, the plans call for the internment of even more aliens on a military base.

And which aliens does the INS propose to intern? Persons belonging to "particular nationalities, or groups known to be composed primarily of certain nationalities, most probably those citizens of states known to support terrorism." The states listed are Jordan, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Morocco, Lebanon--all Arab countries--plus Iran. So, if you happen to be a Jordanian or Syrian or Lebanese national working or studying in this country, your passport could be your ticket to an internment camp.

Not even American citizens of Arab descent may be entirely safe. History has seen this kind of frenzy before. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, one of the most shameful chapters in our history, followed the arrest of Japanese nationals residing here.

The Department of Justice was able to move swiftly in December, 1941, because it had already compiled lists of Japanese professors, journalists and businessmen working here. The INS today wants similar lists for Middle Easterners. The secret plans call for a presidential order directing intelligence agencies to provide the INS with "lists of names, nationalities and other identifying data and evidence." What sort of evidence? In the Los Angeles case, it included receipt of political literature mailed from the Middle East.

In court testimony and briefs, the federal government--the INS and the Federal Bureau of Investigation--have listed or alluded to all sorts of surveillance against the nine Los Angeles targets. What's worse, for all Americans who care about civil liberties, is the government's smug assertion that it does not have to reveal any evidence in public court.

This is not just a case of overstepping the bounds of legal propriety; it is an attempt to indict these nine individuals in the public mind by a mishmash of sensationalist innuendo.

If any of the nine are guilty of any offense against the United States, let them be charged, tried and punished. The government shouldn't be allowed to get away with trashing their homes, uprooting them from school and work, terrorizing their families--and apparently their lawyers as well--all because they may have read or thought or spoken favorable things about a small anti-American clique in a foreign country. This arrogance, and the secret INS plans behind it, must be repudiated. Any other response would be a travesty, especially as we prepare to celebrate the 200th anniversary of our Constitution.

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