Bush administration proposals to tighten immigration laws in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks are drawing a mixed reaction from immigration activists around the country.
The administration is seeking broader powers to indefinitely detain and deport non-citizens who either aid or have links to terrorist organizations.
Attorney General John Ashcroft told Congress this week that federal investigators are taking a hard look at immigrants who contribute money to organizations that have terrorist links. "We propose that any alien who provides material support to an organization that he or she knows or should know is a terrorist organization should be subject to removal from the United States," he said.
But critics of the administration's approach fear that innocent immigrants could become caught up in the crackdown in the wake of the terror attacks on New York and Washington.
Jeanne Butterfield is executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She worries that non-citizens who unknowingly give money to a group with terrorist links could be deported without appeal. "That is a pretty slippery slope," she said. "If I am an immigrant and I give money to a hospital and the hospital is run by an organization that has another wing that may be engaged in some terrorist activity and I have no way to know that, in the sweep of some of the drafts of legislation that we have seen, that innocent person would be swept up in the scope of the law. And I think that is incorrect. We want to be penalizing people who are knowingly furthering terrorist activity and I think we have to be careful in our definitions to make that line clear."
The administration is also seeking broader authority to indefinitely detain non-citizens for questioning in connection with the September 11 terrorist plot without having to present evidence of their possible involvement to a court.
Once again, Attorney General Ashcroft. "The death tolls are too high, the consequences too great," said John Ashcroft. "We must prevent first. We must prosecute second."
That approach concerns Congressman John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "Indefinite detention is unconstitutional," he said. "We have got to get these guys but indefinite detention has not been allowed by the courts up until now so we know without too much other discussion that we may have some problems here on this issue."
Some groups that have long advocated reducing the number of immigrants into the United States are rallying behind the administration's proposals. Roy Beck is president of Americans for Better Immigration. He says U.S. security concerns must take precedence over the rights of non-citizens. "It is important to recognize that they are not American citizens." he said. " They do not qualify for full constitutional rights. And so the question about these detentions is not whether it violates the constitution, because it doesn't. But is it justified, is it done in a fair way for the people who are detained."
The Bush aministration is pushing for speedy congressional action on its anti-terrorism proposals. But several Democrats and even a few Republicans say that any legislation dealing with civil liberties should not be rushed through the Congress.