Wednesday, December 18, 2002


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hundreds of Iranian and other Middle East citizens were in southern California jails on Wednesday after coming forward to comply with a new rule to register with immigration authorities only to wind up handcuffed and behind bars.

Shocked and frustrated Islamic and immigrant groups estimate that more than 500 people have been arrested in Los Angeles, neighboring Orange County and San Diego in the past three days under a new nationwide anti-terrorism program. Some unconfirmed reports put the figure as high as 1,000.

The arrests sparked a demonstration by hundreds of Iranians outside a Los Angeles immigration office. The protesters carried banners saying "What's next? Concentration camps?" and "What happened to liberty and justice?."

A spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service said no numbers of people arrested would be made public. A Justice Department spokesman could not be reached for comment.


One activist said local jails were so overcrowded that the immigrants could be sent to Arizona, where they could face weeks or months in prisons awaiting hearings before immigration judges or deportation.


The Iranian protesters said many of those detained were victims of official delays in processing visa and green card requests.

"My father, they just took him in," one young man told reporters. "They've been treating him like an animal. They put him in a room with, like, 50 other people and no bed or anything."

Khan said one of those in jail was a doctor, who was being sponsored for U.S. citizenship when his sponsor died.

If the INS were a perfectly well-functioning machine without any gray areas in the regulations or time delays in the processing, this type of thing might be warranted. But, knowing many people of varying immigration classifications I understand well what a nightmare it can be. Aside from the normal bureaucratic delays, I know people who have been given what amounts to illegal instructions by their current or future employers with regards to the proper procedures for attaining visas. There are many people who are nominally "legal" but for whatever reason are somewhere between the proper bits of paper, and here is where discretion by the INS employees is appropriate. Since 9/11, the "loopholes" in immigration, which were really just band-aids and gum used to mend and fill the cracks of a ridiculous system by the INS employees, have all been closed up and practically anyone could be found in violation.

Engaging in mass roundups of a particular ethnic group can only be counterproductive on so many fronts. It sends a message not to come forward - ever - and to drive people underground. It creates resentment among their relatives and sends a signal that they are second class citizens as their relatives on expired tourist or student visas aren't simply escorted to the airport, as a European might, but thrown in jail. And, all of this needlessly. If these people needed to be deported there were ways to do it other than rounding them up suddenly, en masse, ensuring that an overloaded processing system remains overloaded leaving them in limbo - in jail - for who knows how long.