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More Foreign Visitors Asked to Report to INS

January 16, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Men from Arab and Muslim countries who missed recent deadlines to register with immigration authorities will get a second chance, but the controversial reporting requirement will be extended to more nationalities, the Justice Department will announce today.

According to official notices readied for publication in the Federal Register, men from Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan and Kuwait who are visiting the United States will now have to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Men from 18 other countries who missed previous registration deadlines will have another opportunity to report from Jan. 27 to Feb. 7 without facing a penalty for having failed to come forward.

"As an act of grace, and as an act that is entirely within the attorney general's discretion, the attorney general has decided to permit those individuals who were required to register [previously] but who did not do so, an additional opportunity to register and provide information in a timely fashion," the INS said.

The registration was launched last year by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to improve haphazard tracking of foreign visitors.

Part of the government's effort to prevent more terrorist attacks, the program gained national notoriety after hundreds of men were detained in the first phase of registration last month. None were terrorists. In Los Angeles, many were long-term Iranian residents with a variety of immigration violations.

The requirement applies to male visitors, age 16 and older, who entered the country before Sept. 30, 2002, and intend to remain. Women, green-card holders, naturalized U.S. citizens and those who have received political asylum are exempt.

"The fact that they are giving this extended deadline shows that they were not equipped to handle the earlier groups," said Kareem Shora, a lawyer with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The Washington advocacy group had lobbied for a second chance for men who missed the first deadlines, citing inadequate notice by INS and widespread confusion. It continues to oppose the underlying policy.

Except for North Koreans, registration has been imposed -- in recent history -- only on men from Arab or Muslim states. Failure to register is grounds for deportation.

"The program clearly is selecting people based on where they come from," Shora said. "We think the next Al Qaeda terrorist is going to take the form of someone like John Walker Lindh, Jose Padilla or Richard C. Reid -- someone who is not going to get screened when they walk into an INS office."

Lindh is the American who joined the Taliban in Afghanistan, Brooklyn-born Padilla is accused of being an Al Qaeda operative, and Reid is the British citizen who tried to blow up a U.S.-bound plane with a bomb hidden in his shoe.

A spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington criticized the registration. "As much as we understand the reasons for enhancing security post-Sept. 11, we do not believe profiling on the basis of nationality, faith or race is appropriate because it does not enhance security," Hashem Elnakib said. "We see this as profiling." Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan are among America's closest Arab allies.

Malek Shibley, an Anaheim lawyer who handles immigration cases, said he is advising his clients who missed earlier deadlines out of fear of being arrested to take advantage of the new opportunity. INS has streamlined its procedures, he said, and men detained solely for immigration irregularities are being quickly released.

"If there is a second chance, I'm sure a lot of people will register," Shibley said. More than 15,000 men have registered so far at INS offices around the country, but there are no reliable estimates of how many stayed away.

Among Shibley's clients is a 40-year-old native of Syria now living in Rancho Cucamonga, who asked not to be identified. Though his visitor's visa expired, the man said he has applied for an extension. He did not register earlier because he was afraid, but he wants to do so now.

"I want to go because I do not want to violate the American law, and I want to live in peace," he said.

The registration requirement discriminates against Arabs and Muslims, he asserted.

"Some people are not good, but everybody is being treated as if they were not good," he said. "There are a very few people who were not good, but everybody is paying the price for what they did."

Advocates of curbs on immigration say the registration policy is reasonable, provided the requirement is eventually applied to all visitors. Justice Department officials have said this is their long-term goal.

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