What's Next: Concentration Camps?
January 1, 2003

Maria Tomchick

On December 16, the INS arrested 500 to 1,000 immigrants in Southern California who showed up to register under the new Exit-Entry Registration System. That date was the deadline for men and boys over the age of 16 from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Sudan to register with the INS.

Many of the detainees had brought their lawyers, family members, and paperwork with them to prove that, although their work and student visas had expired, they had applied for green card status. Some had even scheduled interviews with INS personnel, but were arrested anyway. Notably, most of the arrestees had no criminal records, and many were related to or married to US citizens.

Immigration law allows immigrants with expired visas to remain legally in the US while their applications for citizenship or green card status are being processed. The INS, however, is infamous for its inefficiency and the glacial pace at which it processes applications.

Most of the detainees were from Iran; Southern California has a large Iranian immigrant population of some 600,000 people. Ironically, many of the detainees are not Muslim--they're Iranian Jews who emigrated to escape persecution in fundamentalist Iran. Hence, the arrests were not made for security reasons. Even an INS spokesman, Virginia Kice, admitted that the INS had arrested the wrong people: "The vast majority of people who are coming forward to register are currently in legal immigration status." This didn't stop the INS from packing jail cells so full that there was no place for the detainees to sleep, except on concrete floors, and local jails contracted with Arizona to take some of the overload. Arrests were also made in Cleveland, Dallas, and Minnesota. Seattle, apparently, didn't see similar arrests, but that's may be because there are few immigrants from those five countries here in the Northwest.

The arrests sparked large demonstrations in Los Angeles, charges of racism, and a lawsuit filed by immigration attorneys against the INS and Attorney General John Ashcroft in an LA federal court. The goal of the lawsuit is to win a court-ordered injunction against further indiscriminate arrests by the INS. By mid-January men from another 13 countries will have to register, including immigrants from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and North Korea.

In December, the INS responded to critics (who had pointed out that most of the 9/11 hijackers didn't come from any of these countries) by issuing a directive requiring Saudi Arabian and Pakistani immigrants to register by mid-February 2003. That still leaves out Egypt--some of Al Qaeda's highest-ranking operatives are Egyptian nationals--and doesn't address the fact that some of the hijackers held citizenship status in Germany, that the shoebomber was a British resident, and that Ahmed Ressam (arrested in Washington State for carrying explosives in the trunk of his car) was a Canadian resident.

The arrests are not being done for security reasons; they're simply part of the Justice Department's racist attack on Arab immigrants. The proponents of the lawsuit are charging that the INS has stopped processing green card applications for immigrants from Middle Eastern countries; green cards are supposed to be issued within a few weeks, but many Arab immigrants have been waiting months for their applications to be processed.

If the INS' stated goal is to set up a registration program to provide a comprehensive database of immigrants, then these arrests will only hinder that goal. By arresting law-abiding people, the INS is driving them away from the registration process, ensuring that the database will be neither complete nor useful for any purpose. The arrests do serve one purpose, however. Because not registering is a federal crime, any immigrant who decides to skip registration will then be subject to deportation. It's simply an excuse to create "criminals," deport them, and therefore thin out the ranks of immigrant populations in the US It's extremely racist and anti-immigrant--just what we might expect from a department that answers to John Ashcroft.

In the meantime, the INS is making enemies of the very people that law enforcement agencies will need to rely on to isolate potential terrorists from immigrant communities in the US No terrorist would come forward to register under this program--even the INS admits that. Many terrorists probably wouldn't need to, if they're citizens of European countries, Canada, or already US citizens. The best way to catch them would be to work with immigrant communities, not against them.


Sources for this article: "Hundreds Are Detained After Visits to INS," Megan Garvey, Martha Groves, and Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times, 12/19/02, http://www.latimes.com; "Hundreds of Muslim Immigrants Rounded Up in Calif.," Jill Serjeant, Reuters, 12/19/02; "Feds Detain Hundreds Of Immigrants," CBS News online, 12/19/02, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/12/19/attack/main533627.shtml; "Civil Liberties Groups Sue Over Calif. Arrests," Jill Serjeant, Reuters, 12/24/02.