Under a new U.S. anti-terrorism policy, citizens of Pakistan residing in the United States are among the foreign nationals who have until February 21 to report for fingerprinting and registration. The program affects men over the age of 16 who come from countries that Washington believes are sponsors of terrorism or in which terrorists have sought refuge.
The new U.S. policy affects immigrants from the designated countries, who entered the United States as students, as tourists or on business before October 1, 2002.
An estimated 100,000 such Pakistanis are said to be living in the United States, many of them overstaying their original visas and some entering on fake passports.
The new registration process has them seriously concerned about not just being deported but facing stiffer penalties.
At the airport here in Islamabad, most of the passengers arriving on a routine flight from New York these days are those who think they could be affected by the new U.S. registration requirements.
58-year-old Mohammad Kaleem has just come back and he says there is uncertainty among the Pakistanis, who are leaving the United States out of fear they will be detained and punished.
"After 21st of February, what will happen God knows, what are you going to do, we can't say anything," he said. "Jackson Heights, no Pakistani, Queens, no Pakistani, finished, Brookline, no Pakistani, finished. These are the main three states [areas] of the United States where mostly Pakistani people live."
Some of the recent returnees say they were able to stay in the United States for a number of years without any documents, but decided to flee only when the new law came into force.
Pakistanis living legally in the United States also criticize the new rules as aimed at Muslims only. Mohammad Qasim, a 25-year-old computer engineer, holds a valid work visa. He says there is a large number of immigrants from all over the world whose status is not clear. He says the new rules should also be applied to them.
"I should be obviously [angry], because my people are being treated separately," he said. "I don't like this. The law should be same for everybody not for Pakistanis and Muslims."
Jameela Qureshi, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, is not happy about the way U.S. officials treated her and other Pakistanis at the airport.
"It's ridiculous. They are taking off our shoes and our coats, our head scarf, it is ridiculous," she said.
The new U.S. regulations are being widely criticized in Pakistan. Most people here argue the treatment is unfair given Pakistan's status as a key member of the anti-terrorism coalition. Namika Bhatti is a resident of Islamabad and a law student.
"The Americans have totally forgotten the fact that Pakistan has provided all the possible support to America when they needed it," she commented. "We should not trust America anymore. Because they are now going to deport Pakistanis, a large number of Pakistanis working in the United States."
But some Pakistanis, like resident Hasnain Raza, blame hard-line religious groups for tough immigration rules faced by Pakistanis in the United States.
"They give false statements and baseless statements that soon America will be destroyed, Americans, where ever they are seen, they shall be killed. Due to these things, our Pakistanis are facing many problems throughout the world," he said.
Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri, is visiting the United States to discuss the new immigration rules with senior officials. In an interview with VOA, Mr. Kasuri says such laws will put unnecessary pressure on the new government in terms of Pakistan's cooperation in the anti-terrorism efforts.
"It has become a big political issue and the religious parties are trying to put pressure on our government," the minister said. "They are saying, on the one hand, you are trying to support the U.S. war on terrorism and, on the other hand, they don't really care much about Pakistanis. This is the sort of argument they are advancing, the religious parties, and that is applying pressure on our government."
Mushahid Hussain, a leading analyst and political commentator here in Islamabad, agrees the move is damaging to U.S.-Pakistan relations.
"The feeling is that Pakistan despite being a friend and close ally, is being singled out because primarily it is directed against Muslim peoples and Muslim countries," Mr. Hussain said. "And already the United States government, under the Bush administration, has granted an amnesty to a lot of Mexican-Americans who were illegal visitors to the U.S. So Pakistanis feel that why can't that be granted and extended to Pakistanis as well."
Mr. Hussain says that religious parties are already angry at Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terror and the new immigration rules will provide them another opportunity to criticize the government.
"It will certainly embolden them, strengthen them and give them further support from their constituency" he added. "And this time around, since there are a lot of Pakistani families all over Pakistan who have relatives and friends in the United States who might be affected adversely by the latest INS regulations. So I feel that they have a ready-made issue."
U.S. officials emphasize the registration program is based on national security, not religion or ethnicity. They say the targeted countries are places where al-Qaida or other terrorist groups have links.