Feelings of Insecurity

Announcing the expansion of “Radio Freedom” propaganda broadcasts in Iran to a 24-hour schedule, President Bush said Saturday that his “thoughts and prayers are with the Iranian people, particularly the families of the many Iranians who are in prison today for daring to express their hopes and dreams for a better future.” His administration had little to say, though, to comfort the families of Iranians imprisoned in this country last week by the Immigration and Naturalization Service as part of a nationwide roundup of men and boys from largely Muslim countries. As Bush spoke, dozens still sat in immigration detention centers and local jails, and anxiety and outrage coursed through the Iranian-American community.

Iranian-American lawyers estimate that as many as 700 were arrested in Los Angeles, as many as 200 in Santa Ana and others in the rest of the state when they reported to INS offices to comply with a “special registration” program, announced last month, which required most male noncitizens over 16 who were born in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya to be fingerprinted, photographed and questioned by December 16. The INS has refused to release any information on the number of detentions or the circumstances under which immigrants were detained. Arrests were particularly heavy in Southern California, which boasts the largest Iranian-American population in the United States, but also took place on a smaller scale in other parts of the country.

The goal of the program, an immigration-service spokesperson said, is “to promote national-security objectives” by allowing the INS to compile a database of foreign visitors that could be integrated with the FBI‘s criminal database, and could track foreigners’ whereabouts and immigration status. Those who failed to register face criminal prosecution and certain deportation. Many of the detained have lived legally in the United States for years, technically “out of status” while enduring the lengthy wait for the INS to process their green-card applications.

“Initially we urged Muslims to comply and go in and be on time. From what I saw, all the mosques and other Muslim organizations were doing the same [and] our community members were eager to comply,” said Susan Attar of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Finding themselves imprisoned, “They felt like they were tricked, like it was a setup.”

“If this is to enhance security, I don‘t think it’s working,” Attar said, “and I definitely don‘t think that terrorists would march on in and register.”

Before the deadline, the registrations proceeded fairly smoothly. Some were arrested, but many were allowed to leave freely. Last Monday, though, “Everyone who was going in there was coming out in handcuffs,” said attorney Jesse Moorman.

“The way it was explained to us,” said Kayhan S. Shakib, president of the Iranian-American Lawyers Association, who met with INS representatives over the weekend, “the INS was not prepared [for the number of people who came in to register] and for whatever reason the discretion of the officers was taken away from them.” Orders came down that anyone who was currently out of status, regardless of any pending applications or extenuating circumstances, was to be automatically detained. Lawyers estimate that more than 400 people were detained in the Los Angeles area on the last day for registering. The INS was overwhelmed, keeping as many as 150 people in temporary holding cells in the basement of the downtown Federal Building that were designed to hold 20. Hundreds of others were shipped to detention centers in Lancaster and San Pedro. Some were sent as far away as Arizona.

By late last week, outrage ran sufficiently high in the politically well-connected Iranian-American community that the Justice Department flew a representative in from Sacramento. At a meeting at the airport Hilton last Thursday, Stephen Thom, a federal mediator with the Community Relations Service of the Department of Justice, did his best to reassure about 40 variously frustrated and irate Iranian-Americans. “I don’t think there was any intention on the part of INS to say that you‘re not welcome,” Thom said. “You’ve reacted to requests to come and register by INS and voluntarily overwhelmed the system . . . You‘re to be commended for that.

”I understand that there have been some demonstrations and some marches,“ Thom went on, referring to the 3,000 protesters who rallied in front of the Westwood Federal Building last Wednesday. He warned of the ”negative effect“ such displays of discontent can have. ”It makes other people think you don’t want to be here. I think we need to look at what is the impact of open, glaring challenges to our system.“

Many of the Iranians in attendance -- relaying tales of humiliating arrests, of elderly men being strip-searched by guards, of detainees in Lancaster spending hours exposed to the high-desert cold -- were unimpressed. ”Who‘s going to answer to the insult they did to us?“ demanded Parvin Shahidi, whose husband spent the weekend behind bars.

Shahidi and her husband, Shawn, arrived in the United States in 1997 with their children and applied for permanent residency soon after. When Shawn Shahidi went in to register on Friday morning, he expected a quick and simple process. He has a valid work permit and, he said, should have received his green card months ago. ”I was very confident because all my papers were in order.“ Instead, he was handcuffed and shipped to Lancaster. Shahidi was released Monday night, but his wife wept during an interview at the recollection of his arrest. ”This is a nightmare,“ she said. ”It can’t be true. We didn‘t break the law. We came here for security. That’s why we left Iran.“

Most of the immigrants arrested in Los Angeles, like Shahidi, have been released. The Iranian-American Lawyers Association was encouraged by a meeting with INS officials over the weekend. ”We are glad that we now have a channel of communication, because for two or three days we were just banging our heads against the wall to get someone to listen to us,“ said Kayhan S. Shakib, the organization‘s president.

Shakib is satisfied that the situation in Los Angeles ”is under control,“ but said that problems persist elsewhere, with unknown numbers of immigrants remaining in detention. Among them is Jason Mikaeli, whose sister Jennifer attended Thursday’s meeting at the Hilton and pleaded, ”My brother has been trapped in the San Diego jail among criminals. Who is going to help me? This is tearing my family apart.“ Her brother, who left Iran when he was 9 years old, applied for a green card and has been waiting to be called for an interview for five years. ”He thought, ‘If they take me to jail, for sure I’m going to get out the next day, because I‘m legal,’“ Mikaeli said. Instead he has been detained since last Monday without any opportunity to appear before a judge or post bail.

Mohammad H. Fallahi finds himself in similar straits. The Fresno car salesman came to the U.S. on a student visa in 1974, when he was 17 years old. ”He‘s more American than he is Iranian,“ said his brother, Allen. Fallahi stayed on a series of temporary work permits, and has applied for permanent residency, his brother said. He reported to the INS offices in Fresno, ”believing that everything was all right and that there was no problem.“ He was arrested and shipped to Bakersfield, where, his brother said, he’s been held ever since in a section of the Bakersfield jail meant to temporarily hold defendants awaiting trial. Fallahi has not been allowed to see a judge to request that he be released on bail, and is being kept in solitary confinement in his cell for all but one hour a day, when he is allowed to shower and use the telephone, his brother said, his voice breaking. ”He didn‘t commit a crime. He didn’t do anything.“

Men and boys from 13 additional countries (all of them Muslim but one -- North Korea) are required to turn themselves in for the next round of registrations on January 10. An INS spokesperson refused to speculate whether last week‘s detentions might dissuade people from coming in. ”This is the law,“ she said. ”It’s what they need to do.“


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