In a recent statement, the American Civil Liberties Union "question the effectiveness" of the program that requires immigrants from 18 mainly Muslim countries to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "The INS is wasting an incredible amount of government resources in rounding up these men," said Dalia Hashad, the ACLU's Arab, Muslim and South Asian advocate.
"It seems unlikely that a hardened terrorist is going to voluntarily register with the government," she added. "What is more likely is that law-abiding people who were planning to register will now be afraid to come in because of the arrests, and the INS will use that as an excuse to deport them."
Supporting ACLU's demand, Muslim advocacy groups say that American Muslims have been living in fear and uncertainty since the Bush administration's crackdown on immigrants from Islamic countries. They also say that as many as 700 people have been detained since Dec. 16, the deadline for some Muslim visitors to register with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
INS officials have described this figure as "irresponsibly high" but admitted arresting "many immigrants" who came for registration."We received hundreds of complaints during the last three days," says Aslam Abdullah, member of the executive board of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
The American Civil Liberties Union says 700 were arrested in California alone, "while it remains unclear how many others have been detained across the country." ACLU said that "a full one-quarter of all those who complied with the program were arrested in Los Angeles." Iranians appear to be the most affected, followed by Arabs and Afghans.
The region's main newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, also reported hundreds of arrests, of mainly Iranians and other Middle Eastern citizens, who came forward to comply with the new registration rule.
In Los Angeles, the arrests sparked a demonstration by hundreds of Iranians outside an immigration office on Wednesday. The protesters carried banners saying, "What's next? Concentration camps?" and "What happened to liberty and justice?" 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.
Southern California is home to more than 600,000 Iranian exiles and their families. Muslim rights groups say that there may be as many as 7 million Muslims living in America.
Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Defamation Committee, who has been working in Southern California with aliens attempting to register, said the situation in "California is particularly bad." "Los Angles and Orange County are a disaster area," he said. "It's a combination of long lines, and the INS zeal. It's clear that the INS is applying the rules and laws with a strictness that is uncommon is other parts of the country."
He said minor violations that would otherwise be excused or ignored were leading to arrests and threats of deportations.
Officials at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington confirmed that "otherwise legal and law abiding residents" have been detained for minor violations. But one official said the action was needed to prevent future terrorist attacks. "Since the aliens in question were from countries that were considered by the United States to be state sponsors of terrorism, no chances would be taken," he said. "We don't want to detain guys with minor violations for 90 days and see them deported," he said. "But after the Sept. 11 attacks -- which were done by legal aliens -- we cannot take a chance of anyone we had in custody being released and then committing some act. That can never happen again."
Explaining the unusually high number of detentions, Justice Department officials told United Press International news agency that "a huge turnout of Muslim resident aliens attempting to register ... led to massive backlogs in southern California that left many detained overnight or longer."
"The Southern California offices were unprepared for the last minute rush. The process took time, and a lot of people had to be held while it was completed," said one of the officials.
Muslim advocacy groups called this a racist policy, which was targeting people for their religious beliefs and ethnic origin." MPAC's Aslam Abdullah demanded "a Congressional debate to discuss the unconstitutional INS campaign against the Muslims."
Nihal Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said all major Muslim organizations in the United States had been "urging the INS to extend the deadline but they refused to listen."
An INS spokesman, Jorge Martinez, also confirmed that the department had received requests for extension but said: "We are giving no extensions. Individuals cases are being accommodated on medical and other grounds but no extensions."