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|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
Standing on the steps of the federal building downtown last Friday, Ban Al-Wardi struggled to be heard.
Earlier, a couple dozen demonstrators sat down in the street to protest the third day of the U.S. attack on Iraq. But with war taking hold, the demonstration had assumed an almost perfunctory tone — protesters smiled and spoke calmly to riot-geared police, who gently loaded them into a blue jail bus. Even before the bus rumbled off, many of the several hundred chanters, sign wavers, and onlookers dissolved into the warm Los Angeles morning.
Which made Al-Wardi’s task difficult. The 28-year-old immigration attorney and board member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee shouted over the din of traffic and urged the protesters to stay. She and the leaders of several other immigrant rights’ groups had called a press conference to draw attention to John Ashcroft’s latest roundup of men and boys from largely Muslim countries. It didn’t occur to them that they’d be upstaged by the war. Especially considering that since the start of the Iraqi conflict federal authorities have significantly stepped up their efforts, aggressively pursuing several hundred Iraqis suspected of criminal activities and immigration violations. The FBI is also interviewing some 11,000 Iraqi nationals in a quest for information on terrorism or other subjects that could aid the U.S. “It’s getting really scary,” Al-Wardi said. “Who are they going to go after next?”
Back in December, when many among the first wave of noncitizen men and boys age 16 and over were detained for days after complying with the so-called “special registration,” thousands of protesters took to the streets. Critics of that registration, which included noncitizens from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya, likened it to the World War II internment of the Japanese. The second round, held in January and targeting men from 13 countries including Afghanistan, North Korea, Yemen, Algeria and Lebanon, went more smoothly (sensitivity training for INS workers, more computers to process the registrants, fewer detainments), and protest was limited to a group of volunteers acting as human rights monitors.
On Friday, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the target nations, and opposition was negligible. Al-Wardi, whose parents emigrated from Iraq to the U.S. shortly before Saddam Hussein took power, represents about 50 men who have registered since December. She fears that the government is building a database of information on her clients that could be abused if the U.S. invasion turns into a prolonged battle. “Now that we’re at war, it’s easy to get complacent about the way our government is treating people here,” Al-Wardi told the knot of reporters and protesters who lingered to hear her remarks. “We can’t let that happen.” Ra’id Faraj, a spokesman with the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, agreed. “We are not against having people register,” he said. “It’s the selective targeting we object to.”
Critics of the registrations argue that political and religious fanaticism defy nationality. Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person the U.S. has formally accused of being a 9/11 co-conspirator, is a French citizen. Richard Reid, the would-be airplane shoe bomber, is British. And a U.S. soldier stationed in Kuwait now stands accused of attacking his own division with grenades and gunfire while they slept, killing one and wounding 15 others.
All told, the roundups have netted just over 100,000 registrations, according to Bill Strassberger, of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or, chillingly, ICE) which replaced the domestic arm of the INS earlier this year. The vast majority were required to register because they are “out of status,” meaning they are technically illegal while in pursuit of a green card. Some 57 are facing deportation because of a criminal offense, Strassberger said. An additional seven, he said, have been identified as having some sort of possible link to terrorism. Strassberger declined to elaborate on what such a link might be, or to identify where those cases originated, or to say whether any of them came from Southern California. “We were told that seven had potential” terrorist connections, he said. “Nobody was coming to us saying they definitely were.”
At the Friday press conference, one of Al-Wardi’s clients who was forced to register in December told his story. He introduced himself only as Abed, explaining that his wife was deeply traumatized by his ordeal and pleaded with him not to use his last name. A 39-year-old car salesman from Anaheim, Abed came to the U.S. from Syria 20 years ago on a student visa. He and his wife have two young daughters and he has for years been undergoing the lengthy process of applying for a green card.
When Abed arrived at the INS office for the December registration he hoped he would simply show proof that his application was pending and be released. Instead, he said, he was fingerprinted, photographed, strip-searched and interrogated. His ATM and credit card numbers were copied and he was held for three days and left to sleep on the floor in a room with about 100 other men. “It was terrible, just like a real criminal,” he said. “Like you killed somebody.”
He was moved twice, he said, first to Pasadena then to Lancaster. He said he was never told how long he would be held. When he was finally released, he was told to return with $1,500 in bond money, but when he brought the payment, the fee had been waived. The government’s unexpected largess brought Abed little comfort. He worries that the worst is yet to come. “I feel afraid, but I also feel that I must speak out,” he said. “As you can see from my experience, this war has done a lot of damage here already.”
Abed’s story angers Al-Wardi. “This is a law-abiding, tax-paying, hard-working person who did everything the government told him to do,” she said. “It is incredible to me that we are treating people this way.” The last time the U.S. waged war on Iraq, Al-Wardi was 16, and that event shaped her life. She joined her parents and her younger brother at protests and decided to devote herself to immigration and war crimes law. These past few months, she said, have been a trial by fire in her short legal career. In addition to her clients, she is worried about her relatives in Iraq — nearly 100 of them live in Baghdad. “With all that’s been happening, I feel like I’ve gotten so old,” she said. “I used to think U.S. policies applied to everyone. I might not always agree with them, but at least everyone was subject to them in equal measure. Now I see that it’s not true. I’ve lost a lot of faith in the system.”