On January 28, two agents from the INS arrested and detained Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani editor with The Friday Times, outside of his office at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “I was extremely upset and totally shocked,” he said. “I felt like a suspect. One of the bad things about the policy is that it makes one feel like the system is loaded against citizens of countries that are on this [special registration] list.” Mr. Haider said that in an instant, he was transformed from a research scholar to a terrorist suspect locked in a cell.
This was not Mr. Haider's first time in the United States. In fact, he had been invited by the Brookings Institution and the U.S. State Department to speak at a conference about Pakistan.
He was released after three hours of interrogations and a background check. The INS says Mr. Haider was taken into custody because he didn't check in with the agency in December, as he was instructed to do when he arrived a month before. Mr. Haider says he telephoned the INS and was told he no longer needed to go to an INS office.
Unusual incidents like this are part of the unanticipated fall-out from a new INS program called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. The new law requires visitors -- those on temporary work, student or travel visas -- from nearly 150 countries to be fingerprinted and interviewed when they arrive at U.S. ports of entry.
The INS says that eventually visitors from everywhere in the world will have to register. Often foreigners, like Mr. Haider, are asked to check in with the agency periodically.
“On September 11, 2001, we realized that terrorists were able to come in the United States undetected at the border and they were able to operate unhindered and unknown to our law enforcement,” said Chris Kobach, counsel to Attorney General John Ashcroft. “This registration program is simply an effort to know who is coming into our country and to have a better understanding of what they are doing while they are here. It is something that a lot of nations have.”
The requirement took effect in September 2002 as part of a series of new anti-terror measures under a law called the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act also requires a "special registration" for some nationals who are already living in the United States.
But only men from 24 Islamic countries plus North Korea are on this list. If they don't report to the INS to be interviewed, photographed, and fingerprinted by a set deadline, they risk deportation.
Announcement of the new INS rule was met with outrage in Pakistan where anti-American sentiment was already on the rise. One newspaper editorial said that if Pakistani immigrants are a threat to the United States, then American soldiers based in Pakistan are a threat to their country. Last month, Pakistan's foreign minister, Kursheed Kasuri, made the case for Pakistan's removal from the INS list to top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General Ashcroft.
Though the U.S. government didn't change its stance, Secretary Powell reiterated that Pakistan remains an important ally. “I want to re-enforce that this is not something directed at Pakistanis or Muslims," said Secretary Powell. “It is an effort on the part of the United States to do a better job of knowing who is in our country. We appreciate all the contributions that Pakistanis have made to American life and so many Pakistanis have become American citizens. We will continue to learn from our experiences with the program and I want give the minister [Kursheed Kasuri] my full assurance that the program will be implemented in a dignified manner.”
But if the United States considers Pakistan a strong ally, why are Pakistanis on the list?
Justice Department's Chris Kobach explains that only countries where terrorists have operated are on the list. “Unfortunately, al-Qaida had been using some these countries as locations for operations and recruiting,” he said. “Kind of like a parasite, al-Qaida was exploiting these places as hosts and trying to operate within their borders, and that meant that we had to call in nationals of some of our greatest friends around the world, like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the like. It is an unfortunate coincidence that al-Qaida happened to use these places for its operations.”
Pakistani officials say they are doing all they can to assist the United States in the war on terrorism, but warn that possible detentions of civic-minded Pakistanis living in the United States could send the wrong message to Pakistanis back home.
Asad Hayauddin is the Press Attache at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington. “If someone is a criminal, someone who is out of status and willingly violating U.S. laws, I think it is totally understandable if the United States does not want that person,” he said. “But somebody who has come forth once and has been living above board, paying taxes, a responsible person, deporting them actually hurts the United States because when they go back [to Pakistan] immediately you've generated someone with negative vibes [i.e. bad impressions]. They go back because they are supporting a family back home, five or ten people. So that is not one person's experience, that experience is multiplied five or six times.”
Mr. Hayauddin explained many Pakistanis are neither legal nor illegal, they are in "process limbo," meaning their paperwork for applying for legal status has been backlogged for years.
In an effort to encourage what the INS estimates are between 10,000 and 20,000 Pakistanis in the U.S. to register, Pakistan's embassy in the United States is stepping-up efforts to help its citizens. The INS said only 6 percent of those who registered were detained.
Farukh Amil, political counselor at the Pakistani Embassy, just returned from California where he helped his countrymen at the San Francisco INS office. His presence along with immigrant lawyers offering free advice, was publicized at local mosques and on an Urdu ethnic radio station in San Francisco. He explained why the embassy is making such an effort. “We have one of the largest populations on that list, therefore our problem is completely different for a country that has only a small population here,” he said.
Mr. Amil said the good news is that no Pakistanis were detained during the week he was in San Francisco. The bad news, he says, is that very few came to the INS office, only about 25 a day.
The INS says as so far more than half of the Pakistanis here on temporary visas have registered. The question remains whether the rest will register in the final weeks before the deadline.
In order to avoid the possibility of being deported, hundreds of Pakistanis have chosen to leave the United States for Canada. But Canadian authorities are refusing entry to many of them, saying the numbers were overwhelming.
Farukh Amil of the Pakistani Embassy warns that if consideration is not given to Pakistanis who are still in "process limbo," this could lead to the loss of a strategic partner for the United States. “If we end up having hundreds or thousands of people being deported and plane loads of people going back [to Pakistan from the United States], that's going to create a very negative image for Pakistanis on the forefront of the war on terror,” he said. "Yet we take more hits, more losses than everybody else put together and then our population, let's say our hard-line elements would say, 'Well hey look, this is what you get, you are cooperating and your getting kicked in the teeth.'"
In a conciliatory move, the INS has extended the deadline for Pakistani registration from February 21 to March 21. Whether this extension will allay the fears of thousands of Pakistanis in the U.S., remains to be seen.