After September 11th, a program was set forth requiring all males over 16 from a list of 20 Arab or Middle East countries, who do not have permanent resident status in the United States, to register with U.S. immigration authorities.
In southern California, hundreds of Iranian and Middle East citizens came forward yesterday to register with immigration authorities, only to be handcuffed and put behind bars. Over 500 people have been arrested so far, with some putting the figure at closer to 1,000 people... approximately a quarter of those that came forward.
No charges have been filed against these people, and a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service said no numbers of people arrested would be made public. Many of those arrested, according to their lawyers, had already applied for green cards and, in some instances, had interviews scheduled in the near future.
Many of those who showed were responding to friendly ads on local arabic TV and radio stations and in newspapers telling them about registering with the INS and that not registering could expose them to possible problems with their immigration status. They weren't told that many of them would be immediately arrested, however.
Similar arrests took place throughout the country, but the number of people arrested in Southern California appears to have been considerably larger than elsewhere in the country, due to the region's large Iranian population.
The arrests drew thousands of people to demonstrate Wednesday in Los Angeles. At the rally, which police officials estimated drew about 3,000 protesters at its peak, signs bore such sentiments as "What Next? Concentration Camps?" and "Detain Terrorists Not Innocent Immigrants."
One attorney, who said he saw a 16-year-old pulled from the arms of his crying mother, called it madness to believe that the registration requirements would catch terrorists.
"His mother is 6 1/2 months pregnant. They told the mother he is never going to come home -- she is losing her mind," said attorney Soheila Jonoubi.
The mother of the boy has permanent residence status and her husband, the boy's stepfather, is a U.S. citizen. The teenager came to the country in July on a student visa and was on track to gain permanent residence, the lawyer said.
Lawyers reported crowded cells with some clients forced to rest standing up, some shackled and moved to other locations in the night, frigid conditions in jail cells -- all for men with no known criminal histories. Some were reportedly hosed down with cold water before finding places to sleep on the concrete floors of cells.
According to the ACLU website, perfectly legal immigrants are at risk, due to the failure of the INS to process more than 200,000 change of address forms, which are piling up in an abandoned limestone mine outside Kansas City, MO that doubles as the largest underground records facility in the world, thereby putting hundreds of thousands at risk of wrongful arrest and deportation.
More information is available from the BBC and in this article at the L.A. Times. (Registration required.)
Please make your feelings heard about the INS detentions! Visit the Arab American Institute's website to find out more.