Tougher immigration, but are we safer? After hearing of the Department of Homeland Security"s advisory about how with just a few yards of plastic sheeting and some duct tape people can make safe rooms in their houses in case of a terrorist attack, I called around to a few home improvement stores in Indianapolis. Yes, in the words of one manager, customers have been buying "an unusual amount of duct tape and plastic" since last week"s announcement.
Hattan al-Banjabi, the son of a Saudi Arabian diplomat, registered in last week: "I"ve heard from friends of friends that they were arrested for maybe stupid reasons, and that makes me a little bit nervous ..."
The effectiveness of plastic as a shield against biological and chemical weapons remains to be seen - as does the effectiveness of a new immigration procedure aimed at protecting against terrorists. Special registration, part of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System that was announced last August by Attorney General John Ashcroft, is intended to be a means of tracking higher risk non-immigrants while they are in the United States. "Higher risk" translates to non-immigrant males aged 16 and older from predominately Arab or Muslim countries, the only exception so far being North Korea. Since January, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been calling in groups of non-immigrants according to nationality. This Friday is the deadline for "Call-in Group 3," which applies to citizens and nationals of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. During the registration process, officials collect fingerprints and a photograph from each individual. These records are stored in a new computer system that accesses and shares information with the FBI and border posts. In addition, the registrants must answer a series of questions that include information such as names, addresses and phone numbers of both parents, indication of how the registrant is spending his time in the United States and even more sensitive information like bank account and credit card numbers. Special registration has stirred harsh criticism from civil liberties organizations and advocacy groups for its unabashed concentration on Arabs and Muslims, which some see as a throwback to the mindset that advocated the internments of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In a letter to John Ashcroft, Sens. Edward Kennedy and Russell Feingold wrote, "It is imperative that you take steps to reassure Congress and the American people that this special registration program is not a detention program falling just short of widespread internment of Arabs and Muslims." Although the supposed purpose of special registration is to compile a database of non-immigrants in the United States and to maintain control over who is entering the country, the more drastic result of the program is that those who are out of status are immediately placed in removal proceedings. The INS metes out the same penalty to those who miss their deadlines, unless they are able to provide a well-documented excuse for not registering on time. Paul Gresk, an immigration lawyer, said, "Make no bones about it. The purpose of this registration, frankly, is to remove these people from the United States if they"re here illegally." The program drew attention to itself during the first round of registrations. Hundreds of people nationwide were arrested on minor violation charges, and many of those who were placed in removal proceedings had applications pending and waiting for the INS to process. Some of those who were detained report that they had to sleep on cold floors overnight, and others were denied access to their attorneys. On the INS Web site, Immigration denies that the new regulations discriminate on the basis of race or religion and claims that within three years the registration requirements will apply to all nationalities. The statement, however, does not seem to have mitigated the anxiety felt in the Arab and Muslim community. Ashraf Khan, a Moroccan who registered with the second call-in group, said, "It makes me feel like I"m on probation or in jail for something that I haven"t done." You"re not welcome here Sarah Allaei, director of the Office of International Affairs at IUPUI, spoke about how students reacted to special registration. "Because it identifies people by nationality, it tends to feel more personal. Even if they might understand theoretically why it"s being done (or not), they can"t help but feel that they"re somehow being profiled or singled out as terror suspects." As a result of the negative feelings on the part of students who must comply with special registration, Allaei expressed concern that students from Middle Eastern or predominantly Muslim countries would be discouraged from studying in the United States. "That is a very real concern," she said. "Even though it might not be the intended message of these federal actions, the message that goes out is, "You"re not really welcome here. We"re going to track you, and we"re going to fingerprint you." Why come to the United States if that"s how you"re going to be treated if you can study somewhere else and not feel like you"re being watched or that you"re unwelcome." Beyond the impact special registration has had upon those to whom it applies, its cost is also an issue. "This becomes very expensive to put people into custody," Gresk pointed out. "It"s a budget buster. Immigration has come to understand that there might be some limitations to what they should be doing, both within the eyes of the law, and in the eyes of the public." Special registration is not about adding new regulations to those that already existed. As Gresk explained, "It"s registration pursuant to laws that have been established for a long time, but frankly were not enforced." Immediately after Sept. 11, many Americans expressed outrage that all of the hijackers entered the country with genuine visas. Theoretically, if the existing immigration laws had been enforced at that time, not one of the Sept. 11 hijackers would have been allowed to enter the United States. In a panel discussion at the National Press Club that addressed that issue, Joel Mowbray of the National Review analyzed the deplorable nature of the terrorists" visa applications. "These people couldn"t have gotten cards at Blockbuster to rent movies with forms that look like this, yet they"re getting visas to come into the country." How could Immigration have failed to intercept them at the border? The answer, of course, is that the INS is notoriously inept. It takes months, sometimes years for INS to process paperwork, and in one embarrassing case that was discovered recently, two INS file clerks were indicted on charges of shredding 90,000 documents to get rid of a backlog. While it is certain that immigration did not stop the terrorists of Sept. 11, it is difficult to say with certainty that the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, even when it is fully operational, will stop future attacks. All the people consulted in the past week in connection with this research on special registration remained skeptical about the ability of the new system to weed out terrorists. Allaei said, "Once you"ve admitted a person into the country, if they"re bent on doing harm, they"re not going to keep following up with their addresses. Just having the ability to track a certain segment of the population doesn"t mean that you"re tracking the people who are out to do harm, and it isn"t really a preventative measure." "None of the people who were going to do something unethical would go the legal way," Khan added. "People who have to register are paying tuition, they"re paying taxes, they"re contributing to the economy. The likelihood that they would do something illegal or violent is very low." It may be that the cost of strong enforcement of immigration laws is greater than the benefits it may or may not bring to the United States, especially when the move to enforce them comes so suddenly. "Taking individuals case by case, especially when so many cases have merit, imposing a removal order on somebody is very sad," Gresk said, "especially when people have, for instance, U.S. citizen children. You take that scenario, and you can see how thousands of people are going to be placed in a very difficult situation that is going to cause pain not only to them, but to spouses, children, mothers of children. I think it"s awful. Is there a better way? Probably." Taking a stronger stance on immigration, especially as long as we focus our efforts almost exclusively upon citizens and nationals of Arab and Muslim countries, deepens the divide between their nations and ours. News of the special registration program has not been well-received in the home countries of those to whom it applies. Representatives of the countries specified for Call-in Group 3, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have responded negatively. In an open letter to the INS, Pakistan"s Ambassador Qazi wrote, "Ö the inclusion of Pakistan in the list is offensive to Pakistani opinion and unnecessary for the purpose of ensuring the national security of the U.S. It is unacceptable to us. Pakistan is a frontline ally of the U.S. in Operation Enduring Freedom; it does not deserve to be humiliated by inclusion in such discriminatory lists." Be careful what you ask for In the third round, special registration appears to be running much more smoothly than it did in the first. I went to the Indianapolis immigration office today as Saudi Arabians and Pakistanis came to register. It did not seem excessively crowded, and only a few people in the waiting room were there for special registration. I talked to a young man named Hattan al-Banjabi, the son of a Saudi Arabian diplomat, and asked him if he felt nervous about the registration. "I"ve heard from friends of friends that they were arrested for maybe stupid reasons, and that makes me a little bit nervous," he said, "but I think I"m fine." However, when I talked to Gresk, he predicted, "Certainly, another severe terrorist attack - which we"re prepared for right now as we sit - and you"re going to see a call for much more enforcement of our immigration laws. There will be calls to keep people in detention longer. To remove people faster." But, as Allaei pointed out, "[Special registration] does offer the opportunity for people to feel as if something is being done, and I think the American people do want the government to do something to keep them safe." One of the last remarks Gresk made in our interview was this: "The whole thing with security Ö I want to tell people, be careful what you"re asking for. You might get it!"