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US Searches More Than 300,000 Foreign Nationals

Federal investigators will soon begin interviewing more than 300,000 foreign nationals living in the United States who have overstayed their visas and ignored deportation orders. Some of those being sought may face criminal charges.

A Justice Department spokesman confirms a report that appeared in The Washington Post newspaper that the government is intensifying its efforts to locate an estimated 314,000 foreign nationals who have ignored court orders to leave the country.

The plan is detailed in a Justice Department memo that instructs federal agents to detain some of the immigrants on criminal charges rather than deporting them as was originally planned.

The operation is to focus initially on some 6,000 immigrants from countries known to harbor al-Qaida terrorist operatives. Arrests are expected to begin next week of hundreds of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Pakistan who have criminal records and whom the government regards as potentially the most dangerous.

The roundup of those who have ignored deportation orders, or absconders as they are referred to by government officials, will be carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS.

INS Commissioner James Ziglar spoke about the initiative recently at an immigration conference in Washington. "We want visitors to our country to understand that we expect them to stay here on the terms under which they were admitted. I want to make it clear also that this is not a sweep, no matter how it is characterized, it is not a sweep. These individuals have been accorded due process," he said. "They appeared before immigration judges. They went through the appeals process and now face a final order of deportation. Instead of complying with the law, they chose to jump bail or abscond. This must not and cannot continue."

But Arab-American and civil rights groups are concerned that the intensified effort to locate those who have evaded deportation could lead to Arab immigrants being unfairly targeted.

Jean Abinader, the Managing Director of the Arab American Institute here in Washington, said "It has all the earmarks of racial profiling, although they said they are going to begin with people who are alleged criminals. Well, what does 'alleged' mean? You know, does it mean traffic violations. There are just too many questions there. And also the fact that they want to keep it secret. The memo said that there wasn't going to be any public announcement about it. It makes one wonder as to whether or not the government actually has a well thought out campaign or if maybe this is just another fishing expedition."

Most of the 300,000 who have overstayed their visas are from Latin America.

But a Justice Department spokesman says it makes sense to go after illegal immigrants who may have ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network and says federal investigators should be criticized for not doing it sooner.

Meanwhile, human rights activists are raising concerns about the wellbeing of federal detainees being held at two jails in New Jersey. A spokesman for Amnesty International says his organization is worried that some of the detainees are being held with convicted criminals and that others may have been denied access to legal counsel.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has repeatedly said that no one arrested in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks has been denied legal representation.