Initially, people from five Muslim countries were asked to register. Later, 13 more countries were added to the list. Last week, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were also added. Pakistani and Saudi nationals are required to register before Feb. 21.
Those who arrive for interviews at an INS office are also fingerprinted and photographed. Many have to wait, sometimes for days, for the interview. And until the INS officers are done with them, they are kept in virtual detention. Their fingerprints, pictures and the information they provide are matched against an FBI database for terrorists and criminals. Those unlucky ones who are not cleared by the computer, are arrested, sent to prison and may face deportation proceedings. It may take years before they are either released or sent home.
Although the INS has acknowledged detaining 400 people so far, the American Civil Liberties Union says the number is much higher. "Most of them were out of status," says Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez. "It is the duty and the responsibility of the INS to temporarily detain those who are found out of status."
Some of them have been released on bail, says Martinez. Others await judgment in jail cells. Meanwhile, human rights and legal aid groups have stepped in to help the immigrants. The ACLU has urged the government to cancel special registration because, it says, the process smacks of racial and ethnic profiling.
On Sunday, the American Immigration Lawyers Association issued a questionnaire for the immigrants to fill out. The American Immigration Law Foundation, the National Immigration Forum and the American Anti-Defamation Committee also have appealed to the immigrants to fill out the forms. "Your answers to this questionnaire will be used to assess problems and potential violations of rights in the registration process. We will not share identifying information with anyone without your permission," says a joint statement issued by the country's five major advocacy groups.
The sponsors are asking the immigrants already interviewed by INS officials to tell them how did they hear of special registration. Those ordered to register while visiting an INS office for other immigration benefits -- such as adjustment of status, work permit, advance parole - have been asked to inform the sponsors.
They also have been asked to name the place where they went for registration and whether they were able to register or prevented from doing so. The applicants have also been asked to tell if they had access to legal advice and whether they were allowed to take their lawyers with them for the interview. They have been advised to share their experience, particularly the problems they might have faced during the registration, with the advocacy groups.
Those made to sign papers during the interview have been advised to tell immigration lawyers what papers they signed and did the INS photocopy their documents or kept the originals.
Those detained should tell the lawyers where were they detained, for how long and when and how were they released. Those still in custody have been asked to get in touch with the sponsoring associations.
Those released have been asked to tell what conditions did the INS set for their released and whether they were released on bail. Those forced into deportation proceedings during the registration, have been asked to tell where and when the proceedings began.
The sponsors say the questions are based on the rights all immigrants, including visitors, enjoy in the United States. Individuals who have had their rights violated can seek legal recourse.