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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Deportation Sweep Targets Middle Easterners

Policy: Immigration officials will use FBI data to track those previously ordered to leave.

January 09, 2002|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As part of a broad crackdown on illegal immigration following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials are targeting as the priority for deportation several thousand Middle Eastern men who have previously been ordered to leave the country.

The men, primarily from countries viewed as strongholds of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, will be the first to have their names added to the FBI criminal database under a new strategy to capture fugitives who ignore deportation orders, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

Immigration officials last month announced plans to use FBI computers to help locate more than 300,000 people--most from Latin America--who have disappeared into U.S. society rather than be kicked out by immigration judges.

Law enforcement officials decided to focus first on the Middle Eastern men, putting their names at the top of the list.

"We can't enter 314,000 names all at once. It's going to take time. We had to prioritize," a Justice Department official said.

But civil rights groups and advocates for Arab Americans denounced the new strategy Tuesday, saying that it is the latest in a series of law enforcement actions that have unfairly subjected Middle Easterners to profiling and targeted police actions.

"It creates the impression that there is a two-tiered justice system: one level for Muslims and Arab Americans and another for the rest of society," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy organization in Washington.

Non-Muslims also assailed the new policy. "We would be concerned that it's a systematic profiling of Middle Easterners--and that it reflects a bias toward Middle Easterners that we don't find acceptable," said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The effort was first reported in the Washington Post, which said it would apply to about 6,000 Middle Eastern men. Justice Department officials declined Tuesday to cite numbers, saying only that thousands would be affected. They also would not identify the countries involved.

"The Justice Department continues to use all legal authorities to investigate the terrorist attacks of September 11th and to prevent any future attacks," officials said in a written statement late Tuesday.

"The Department of Justice's highest priority, which is preventing terrorists from killing more innocent Americans, is reflected throughout our enforcement operations. Terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda within the United States are a continuing threat to Americans. We will continue to focus investigative, intelligence-gathering and enforcement operations on individuals in the U.S. from countries with highly active Al Qaeda networks to protect Americans."

Individuals who ignored deportation orders have had little risk of getting caught until now. In response to that growing embarrassment, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James W. Ziglar disclosed last month that his agency was in the process of collecting the names of deportation fugitives and this year would enter them in the National Crime Information Center, a database maintained by the FBI.

Under the new approach, INS officials are counting on local police to notify them if they come across the fugitives. INS officials would then deport the "absconders."

Immigration officials estimate that the new policy might help reduce the overall total of absconders by 7% to 10% each year.

"We could go after these individuals alphabetically, randomly or use law enforcement judgment and determine who might be the most dangerous individuals, based on the fact that some of them are from countries with active Al Qaeda cells," a Justice Department spokesman said.

Nonetheless, the decision set off new alarms. "We understand there's a reason for people who break the law to be brought to justice and apprehended and dealt with appropriately," Hooper said. "But the enforcement of the law should not be based on religious and ethnic profiling."

Others expressed concern that, through bureaucratic blunders, innocent people might be hit with the severe measure of deportation.

"We would expect there will be people on this list who do not know they've been put in removal proceedings," said Judy Golub, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. "Everyone has stories about INS not properly responding to changes of address."

But law enforcement officials, none of whom would comment on the record, argued that only those who already have flouted deportation orders would be affected.

Said one Justice Department official: "These are people who have all had their day in court. They're not just being picked on. They've all had an opportunity to go before an immigration judge and explain why they should remain."

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Times staff writer Josh Meyer contributed to this report.

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