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Terrorism Civil Liberties - 2003-02-13

As the United States government continues to implement new national security measures at home, one is now requiring thousands of men from Arab and Muslim nations to be fingered printed, photographed and interviewed by the U-S Immigration and Naturalization Service (I-N-S). The visitor registration program has been ordered by Congress to track foreigners from countries considered high risk for terrorist activity. Some civil rights groups and immigration lawyers claim the program is discriminatory. Can civil liberties for visitors as well as citizens be preserved while fighting the war on terrorism? VOA's Brent Hurd reports.

TEXT: Amir arrived in the United States from his native Iran in 1974 on a student visa. He was 19 years old. Last December, he stopped by the local I-N-S office in Fresno, California to check on the status of his application for a green card, a document that would provide permanent U-S residency.

By the end of the day, he was handcuffed and would spend nearly a month in jail. He was convinced the I-N-S had made a mistake. On his trip to jail, the van he was riding in passed by an airport.

///AMIR ACT/// The first thing that was in my head is that they are going to put me in a plane and deport me right then. It was like I was facing death. The truth is that since the revolution I never acknowledged the present Iranian government. I had been refused to go back for a visit. Now you can image to be deported to that place. Since 1979, the U-S has been my country. That is all I knew. ///END ACT///

Amir doesn't want to use his last name for fear that speaking out may hurt his case. He spent most of his time in jail in solitary confinement, allowed only one hour a day out of his cell.

Hundreds of other men have also been detained or arrested. Like many of those arrested, Amir once let his visa expire, but under an amnesty program, he paid a fine and applied for a green card. At the time he was apprehended, he was waiting for the I-N-S to approve that, a process that can take years.

The detainments have taken place under a new program requiring visitors in the United States to register with the I-N-S. This is the first time since 1940 that the U-S government is fingerprinting, photographing and interviewing non-residents..

The program is part of a new series of laws passed after the September eleventh terrorist attacks and are designed to scrutinize non-citizens living in the United States.

The I-N-S has set deadlines for males from 19 Middle Eastern and North African countries, plus North Korea to comply or face deportation. Many are in the United States on student visas, work visas and tourist visas.

Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez says the I-N-S acted appropriately in detaining the men.

///MARTINEZ ACT/// The majority of people detained are people who overstayed their visas so they are in violation of immigration law and the I-N-S has to take appropriate action. ///END ACT///

Civil Liberty groups agree that many of those detained did not have their papers in order. However, Jason Erb of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) says the reason is partially the fault of the I-N-S.

///URB ACT/// Technically that is correct. They did overstay their visas. But often times many were detained because of backlogs and the I-N-S's inability to process their efforts to change their status. In general, there is no reason to be critical toward a policy that aims to better track visitors to this country. That's obviously something that's been needed for a long time. But the problem is in the very short period of time that was given for implementation. ///END ACT///

Critics of the program argue it is doing little to increase security and is causing fear and anger by targeting the wrong people. They say it is unlikely that a terrorist is going to register voluntarily with the I-N-S. CAIR's Jason Erb explains:

///URB ACT/// The problem with this kind of registration program and other forms of religious and ethnic profiling taking place since September 11th is that they are not going to identify people who might be hostile to the United States. Only targeted criminal investigations are going to find people who are planning hostile actions against us. This kind of broad sweep is really going to sweep up a lot of innocent and well-meaning individuals who generally have a high regard for the country and punish them in ways they don't deserve. ///END ACT///

However, the Justice Department points out that the September eleventh hijackers went to great lengths to remain in the United States legally.

Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for The Washington Post, says in times of war, the government has a responsibility to keep an eye on people from countries considered dangerous.

///KRAUTHAMMER ACT/// We are profiling by national origin and it is perfectly logically. I think it is absurd to think that we should be detaining everybody with the same frequency and suspicion as we might detain a 21-year-old man of Saudi origin. The fact remains the people who attacked us were Muslims of Arab origin acting in the name of Islam. This is not a situation of our creation. We did not create September eleventh. We were attacked, and we are reacting in the only way a rational and civilized society can react. ///END ACT///

The new visitor registration program is just one of a series of anti-terror measures implemented by the U-S government in the wake of the U-S terrorist attacks.

Anthony Lewis, an author of several books on U-S law and civil rights, warns that these measures will damage civil liberties for visitors as well as citizens of the United States. A recent ruling in a U-S federal court gives President Bush the authority to designate any U-S citizen as an "enemy combatant." Mr. Lewis says Americans are only beginning to feel the effect of this ruling.

///LEWIS ACT/// The single most serious threat to civil liberties is the power to arrest any American citizen and detain that person with no lawyer or right to trial by simply designating that person an enemy combatant. The danger here, of course, is that the government is not claiming a right to deal harshly, suspiciously with a narrow group of people. It is claiming a general power. For example, on the point of detaining American citizens, this could be used to detain anybody. It is giving a power free of constitution rules. ///END ACT///

Analysts say civil liberties have been in jeopardy at other times in U-S history, including the civil war and both world wars. But Anthony Lewis stresses the current war on terrorism is different because there is no definite enemy or time limit.

///LEWIS ACT/// We cannot tell when or whether it will be over. We are in war with an enemy that is not defined. We can't imagine them surrendering at some date, walking onto the deck of some American battleship. This thing could go on for an endless time. Are these war methods going to go on for all that time? ///END ACT///

That is highly unlikely, argues Mr. Krauthammer.

///KRAUTHAMMER ACT/// The idea that the war on terrorism is going to be an endless war I think is an unwarranted assumption. There have been a lot of wars of terrorism. It is true for now the war is open-ended. But of course, you know one year after World War Two begin it appeared that it was open-ended. We simply don't know when a war will end until it does. I think it would be reasonable for us, at a halfway point, maybe in two or three years to review where we are in the war and with civil liberties. ///END ACT///

Meanwhile Amir, who was released from jail on January eighth, continues to face an uncertain future. Like many who fled their countries to enjoy freedom and opportunity in the United States, he has grown accustomed to life here. Deportation would mean an uncertain future in a country he no longer calls home.

For Focus, this is Brent Hurd