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'Monitors' Target INS Registration

They will watch outside offices, saying abuses mark effort to keep tabs on Middle Eastern men.

January 09, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

When U.S. immigration officials reach the deadline Friday for Round Two of their controversial program that requires male citizens of 19 heavily Muslim countries to register, they will encounter a jarring sight: scores of "human rights monitors" in fluorescent yellow shirts stationed outside INS offices throughout Southern California.

Prompted by widespread charges that people who registered last month, during the first round of the program, were mistreated -- allegations that range from verbal harassment to unnecessary body cavity searches and detentions -- a diverse group of people has volunteered to monitor INS conduct. The monitors say they aim to document any abuses, as well as count the number of those who end up detained.

Both the treatment and the number of detainees have been hotly debated since last month, when federal immigration officials began fingerprinting, photographing and questioning male citizens of countries deemed to be potential sources of terrorism.

Last month's first round of registrations involved citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Sudan. Friday marks the registration deadline for citizens of 12 other heavily Muslim countries, plus North Korea: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Next month, citizens of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are required to register.

INS officials say the Justice Department, of which INS is a part, has forbidden them from commenting on the record about many aspects of the program. In the past, Justice Department officials have denied mistreating registrants and have asserted that the number of those detained for overstaying their visas and other illegalities had been inflated by advocacy groups.

Activists have said that as many as 1,500 people had been detained. In the days immediately following December's deadline, Justice Department spokesmen said that about 200 people had been detained in Southern California. INS officials now say that about 500 people were detained nationwide, most of them in Southern California, which has the nation's largest Iranian population. All but 17 of the detainees have been released, according to Jorge Swank, the INS community relations officer in Los Angeles.

Ban Al-Wardi, an immigration attorney and board member of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that many of those detained and thrown into deportation proceedings were in the process of obtaining their green cards, had legal work and travel permits and should not have been penalized for being honest enough to register.

The idea of human rights monitors may be more familiar in dictatorial regimes than the United States, but the concept has galvanized volunteers, who assert that the INS registration program amounts to a massive violation of human rights.

At All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena on Tuesday evening, about 75 people -- most of them non-Muslim -- attended a training session for the monitoring project.

Volunteers included people like Kathy Masaoka, a Japanese American motivated by the memories of her community's World War II internment experience, and Lyn Elliott, a retired public-school teacher who has made the monitoring project her first act of political activism since the Vietnam War.

"The use of racial and religious profiling as a wedge to attack the civil liberties of immigrants is ... fascism, and we have to do something about it," said Bonnie Blustein, a community college math instructor and member of the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena.

INS spokesman Swank denied that the agency was engaged in profiling, noting that eventually the registration program will be extended to citizens of all nations who are in the United States on temporary visas.

Participants in the monitoring program were instructed simply to observe and record, and not attempt to interfere, even if they see conduct that they believe is abusive. The volunteers were also told not to provide legal advice and to make a commitment to "nonviolent, legal monitoring activities," said Sarah Eltantawi, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

The monitoring is one of several efforts across the country to protest the INS registration program and support those affected. Over the last few weeks, advocates for immigrant groups have lobbied Congress to end the program, filed a class-action lawsuit, held protest rallies and offered free legal clinics to educate people about their rights and review their paperwork.

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