Between 500 and 700 men were recently arrested in and around Los Angeles after complying with a post-Sept. 11 program designed to track Middle Eastern men living in the United States. All males at least 16 years of age from five countries — including Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria — who do not have permanent resident status in the United States were ordered to register in person with the Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services by Dec. 16. Few Americans would argue with the necessity of such a program, but what transpired was not only a shameful betrayal of constitutional rights, but a fatal misstep in our nation’s war on terror.
Complying with the new special registration, hundreds of Middle Eastern men and boys were detained, allegedly for minor immigration infractions. Many were law-abiding immigrants who were in the process of obtaining green cards and visas, victims of official delays under a lengthy and complex INS process. The move shocked many immigration experts and attorneys, who claimed the INS had changed its established practice of not detaining people until their green card applications were processed.
Hundreds were shackled in handcuffs and detained overnight in crowded 20-by-30-foot cells. The men reported that they were forced to sleep standing up or on concrete floors without blankets or heating. Due to the unexpected number of detainments, food and water ran out for the hundreds of detainees. Denied legal representation, many were reportedly strip searched in freezing, standing room-only detention centers, with some even being hosed down with cold water. Imagine, hundreds of immigrants to the United States, many of them fleeing the very nations deemed part of the “axis of evil” and trying to establish permanent legal residence in America, being treated worse than common criminals and subjected to brutal, inhumane treatment.
What will turn out to be the worst aspect of the abuses will be the unintended consequences of the INS’s manner of implementation. The special registration is targeted not at suspicious activity, but at so-called suspicious people. It is exceedingly unlikely for a clandestine terrorist living in the United States to present himself voluntarily to a federal agency. Many of those individuals who did comply with the special registration order had been living, working, raising families, and paying taxes in the United States for up to a decade. In fact, these are the very individuals whom our government should be reaching out to in its homeland security efforts. Communities from oppressive Middle Eastern nations like Iraq, Iran and Syria understand and on the whole support the difficult steps the United States must take to protect the homeland. However, the INS made a strategic mistake, alienating potentially invaluable allies in our domestic and international war on terror. The government’s action disrupted lives of innocent immigrants and jeopardized any future cooperation with these communities. Additionally, the international media have replayed accounts of the detainment of innocent Middle Eastern men countless times, further fueling anti-American propaganda abroad. Can you imagine any other immigrant group reporting voluntarily now to INS offices or reaching out to government officials when suspicious activity is witnessed?
The government overstepped acceptable boundaries in the execution of its terrorism prevention program. It is alarming that our government is employing the very strong-arm tactics that both our Constitution and our war on terror mutually seek to combat. In practical terms, upholding our nation’s pledge of liberty and justice for all must be an integral part of our homeland security operation. Sadly, the erosion of the civil liberties we take for granted continues every day.
Jan. 10 was the second deadline for individuals from 15 other countries, including Algeria, Somalia and North Korea, to register with the INS. There are a great many lessons that the INS can and must learn from the grievous abuses in Los Angeles. During a large rally following the detentions in Los Angeles, one protester held a sign that read, “What happened to liberty and justice?” If we fail to fight for our constitutional liberties, every American will soon ponder these very words.
Sam Yebri is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.