Diplomatic sources, however, said that there were six terror suspects detained--all of them from Middle Eastern or Muslim countries.
The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System was launched Sept. 11, 2002, to register selected adult male visitors with U.S. immigration authorities. At U.S. ports of entry, the INS has questioned and fingerprinted thousands of visitors before allowing them into the country, said Martinez.
At the same time, men--citizens from countries on a list of 25 nations--already in the United States were told to report to INS offices for similar registration. Green card holders and U.S. citizens are exempt. Most of the 25 countries affected by the procedures are Arab or Muslim majority nations. But U.S. officials insist that they are not profiling Muslims. They say the new system is based solely on national security concerns about terrorist threats.
On Dec. 24, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a class action lawsuit against the INS and Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Martinez denies the allegation: "We are looking for terrorism suspects, criminal offenders and other suspects. We are not here to target any group of people on the basis of their ethnicity or faith."
He also rejected criticism that an individual with ties to terrorism would never come to an INS registration center as incorrect. "Not all suspects know that their names are on our watch list. Others come because they fear that law enforcement agencies would come knocking at their doors if they do not register," he said. "It is known that the al Qaida leadership tells its cell members to assimilate within the community, to comply with all laws and regulations, and not to shine a spotlight on any terrorist planning activities that they may be conducting," he told the U.S. State Department's Washington File Web site in an earlier interview. "The Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammad Atta actually applied for an adjustment of (visa) status."
He also speculated that when faced with the choice of being in criminal violation of the law or trying to "bluff their way through a federal law enforcement officer," some would-be terrorists might even choose to leave the United States.
Kris Kobach, counsel to Ashcroft told a recent briefing in Washington that "convicted drug offenders, traffickers and burglars are among hundreds of aliens who have been stopped as they attempted to enter the United States. Aliens with fraudulent documents, (and) aliens who've previously violated immigration law" are also among them, Kobach said.
Initially, the list of countries consisted of five Muslim nations--Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria. All of them were already on a State Department list of terrorism sponsors. Since then the list has been expanded twice to the current 25 nations.
During the first two phases that ended on Dec. 16, the INS registered more than 15,000 foreign nationals from the first two sets of nations. About 5,000 have been registered during the third phase that ends Feb. 21.
The largest number of people who need to register come from Pakistan. INS officials have estimated that 15,000-20,000 Pakistanis may need to register but the Pakistan Embassy say the figure could be as many as five times that number.