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Registration Rules Prompt Some American Muslims to Seek Canadian Residence - 2003-04-14

Tens of thousands of Muslim men who live in the United States are required to register with the Federal government by April 25. Officials with the Department of Homeland Security say the program is helping to weed out potential terrorists. But this "special registration" is sending shockwaves through America's Muslim immigrant community. The deadline for Pakistanis expired last month. Rather than sign up, hundreds of families fled to Canada. More Muslims are expected to leave as the next deadline approaches.

Pakistani families from as far away as Texas and California have made their way to the border crossing north of Plattsburgh, New York. Most have overstayed their visas and are afraid of being deported back to Pakistan. Mohammad Faruk, an illegal alien who has lived on Long Island for three years, working as a carpenter said, "I want to leave before the deadline, because I don't want to go back in my country and I cannot live here. I have no choice."

But like dozens of families, Mr. Faruk, his wife and three children were turned back by Canada, when the rush of asylum seekers overwhelmed that country's border. He was then detained by American officials, who held him until he could raise a $5,000 bond.

"When they arrest me at night, like 10 o'clock, I say, 'Where go my kids?' And they say, 'We don't know.' It's very bad. My family, they sleep five days in the van," he said.

With the registration deadline for Pakistani families now passed, the Faruks are stuck in a shelter in Vermont, waiting for another chance to enter Canada. Shelters are full here and at border crossings further west, at Buffalo, New York, and Detroit, Michigan. Patrick Giantonio, head of a group called Vermont Refugee Assistance said his group has been forced to stop helping new families.

"We hit our saturation point. We have housed and cared for more than 200 people," Mr. Giantonio said.

Mr. Giantonio said there are still many illegal immigrants in the United States who haven't registered.

"If someone's intercepted on the way to the border, if they're out of status and if they should have registered and if they did not by the deadline, then they probably will be detained. People are being caught in somewhat of a trap," he said.

Federal officials say they don't know how many foreign nationals have dodged registration. But they say the program is a success. Kimberly Wiseman, a spokesperson for the newly re-organized Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, said nearly 90,000 people have registered and been scrutinized so far.

"It allows the United States to run the fingerprints of aliens who may present elevated national security concerns against a database of wanted criminals and known terrorists. We have identified nine terrorists through the program or terrorist-related connections," she said.

Miz Wiseman said more than 1,700 men have been detained through special registration, most on immigration charges. One hundred seventy are still in jail, many arrested while trying to flee the United States. But some critics have expressed doubt that those numbers add up to success. In a judiciary hearing in March, Republican Senator Arlen Specter questioned the value of arresting Pakistanis who are trying to leave the country. The Pakistani government - a key ally in the war against terrorism - has described the policy as severe.

"I would say there's an environment of fear and trepidation," said Assad Haya-Oodeen, an official with Islamabad's embassy in Washington. "So people who don't even have misdemeanors against them are facing detention and deportation."

Canadian officials say nearly 2,000 Pakistanis have fled to their country from the United States in the first three months of this year as many as arrived during all of last year. Many more are still waiting on the border. With the deadline for Pakistanis now past, immigrants from five more countries including Egypt and Indonesia are required to register by April 25. Volunteer groups on the border say illegal aliens from those nations have already begun making contact, to ask for help fleeing to Canada.