August 31, 2002
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Muslim immigrants to face tougher US regulations

Suleman Din in New York

Immigrants and visitors from certain Arab and Muslim countries will be fingerprinted, photographed, and tracked after September 11, according to a new justice department plan, and immigration advocates worry that it will be only a matter of time before the scrutiny is applied to all.

The programme will begin at several undisclosed ports of entry on September 11 and take effect everywhere else on October 1.

Those primarily targeted will be nationals from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria.

The visitors will have to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service after 30 days in the country. Those who fail to do so will face fines and even deportation.

"This system will expand substantially America's scrutiny of those foreign visitors who may present an elevated national security risk," Attorney General John Ashcroft told reporters at the plan's unveiling.

But civil liberties groups say the security plan sends a wrong message.

"The Bush administration is, step by step, isolating Muslim and Arab communities both in the eyes of the government and the American public," said Timothy Edgar, a legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union. "This latest move needs to be seen in the larger context of all the actions targeted at people of Middle Eastern descent since September 11."

"We should focus on the needle, not make the haystack bigger," concurred Ben Johnson, associate director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "We should not assume that large groups of people are guilty."

Johnson said he foresaw the programme being expanded to include other nationals, including Pakistanis and Indians, green-card holders, and even citizens, much like the 1996 anti-terrorism law's interpretations were expanded to include criminals and nationals from South America.

"The justice department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service have a pattern of doing that," Johnson said.

New Jersey immigration attorney Sohail Mohammed, however, thought the plan was a public relations ploy by Ashcroft and the justice department. "The American government is doing something," he said. "But 'something' doesn't cut it. If anything, this plan is a trial balloon, to gauge people's reaction to further profiling."

The ACLU felt the system would do little to help increase safety, arguing that terrorists would find ways around it.

Mohammed, who has represented a number of detainees, said he was for anything to ensure that someone like Richard Reid doesn't get on a plane. But he felt the real issue behind the plan was discrimination.

"We're basically legitimizing profiling now," he said. "We're starting our evaluations of people on race and religion, and we know it won't work."

INS spokesman Bill Strassberger did not agree, saying, "The real agenda is to improve security in the United States and improve the knowledge of who is coming and what their business is here."

Of concern to Mohammed as well was the amount of information that could be abused. The ACLU worried that such a system would be a convenient cover for surveillance of people with unpopular beliefs.

But immigration attorney Harley York said that if someone had not done anything wrong, they should have nothing to worry.

"Some people think they are being profiled," he said, "but there are so many secondary effects of the 9/11 attacks we have to live with."

Still, York said the money the government would spend to fund the new system could be better used to increase intelligence and pinpoint individuals who are involved in terror.

"How would profiling have stopped John Walker, or Jose Padilla?" he wondered.

York said the tracking system was the result of the government's inability to find a workable solution to the problem of policing America's borders, through which 35 million people travel every year.

"The [INS] is throwing things on a wall, and seeing what sticks," he said, echoing Mohammed's thoughts.

Mohammed said that if the system stuck, it would be selectively enforced, leaving immigrants no real idea when, if at all, they would come under scrutiny. "So much discretion is left to the people at the borders," he said.

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