Saturday, March 22, 2003

Know Your Rights

National Lawyers' Guild Hotline # for Americans born in Iraq: (415) 285-1055.

"Everybody has a right not to talk to any government agent. And we recommend that everybody talk to an attorney before talking to any government agent," said Riva Enteen, program director for the Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyer's Guild. The guild has set up a 24-hour hotline that potential interviewees may call for free legal advice.

Advocates stressed that they wish to cooperate with federal officials. But they question national policies that, post-Sept. 11, have led to the questioning and detention of thousands of Arab and Muslim men.

"The problem is, these interviews are based on race and ethnicity, not on any suspicion that anyone has done anything wrong," said Jayashri Srikantiah, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Advocates are concerned that people who consent to interviews could see some of their information passed to immigration officials. But FBI spokeswoman LaRae Quy said the agency's intent is not to find immigration violations but to gather information to help the country fight Iraq.

She said her office has not arrested anyone in the course of the interviews, and that people here legally have no reason to fear the FBI.

FBI officials have been granted the power to detain people on alleged immigration violations if they can't press criminal charges, advocates said. And the agency is working with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find Iraqi nationals who are in the country illegally, according to a press release BICE released Thursday.

Advocates said they have heard from a handful of the 125 people FBI officials said they have interviewed so far. Some said they were called a half-dozen times in one day by an agent.

Some interviewees were asked questions, including whether they had family in Iraq and whether they communicate with anyone there frequently, said Helal Omeira of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Also:ACLU Hotline:(415) 285-1055

Alshahwany, an American citizen, said the visit was courteous and quick. She was still in her pajamas and robe when she greeted the agents, whom she did not let in.

``I was startled,'' she said Friday.

The agents wanted to know the whereabouts of her two brothers, one a physician, the other a software engineer. Both are green-card holders, or permanent residents, and emigrated from Iraq three years ago.

She declined to give the agents her brothers' addresses and phone numbers. But after the interview, she called her brothers and they called the FBI agents. Their interviews went without problems, she said.

``I've lived here long enough to know that I have rights. I said this is a voluntary interview but they didn't tell me that,'' said Alshahwany, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1979.

In recent weeks, the FBI met with various community groups to inform them that agents will question Iraqis as part of a national security plan.

``No one should be shocked when we show up,'' Quy said.

For some Iraqi-Americans, including those who were not interviewed, the FBI visits are a reminder of the repressive nation they fled.

Nazar Alquroaishi, 59, who owns a San Jose Internet business that sells computers, was not interviewed by the FBI. Alquroaishi said agents are singling out ``Iraqis, and to me that's a sad story. We hate Saddam and his Iraq because he persecuted us. And we love this country because you can live the way you like and speak out freely