Recently U.S. Justice Department authorities arrested a Florida university professor accused of being a terrorist leader. Sami Al-Arian of the University of South Florida, and three other Muslim activists were also charged with crimes ranging from racketeering to money fraud. The arrests are part of the increased monitoring of Muslim residents and visitors in America. A new requirement for men from several mostly-Muslim countries to report to immigration officials under a special registration program, has caused widespread concern among many foreign visitors.
Kris Kolbach, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, says the new registration program for some Muslim visitors is simply another way to prevent possible terrorism in the United States. "The vast majority of the people who have come in and registered are absolutely good guys and legitimate visitors here. People in the United States welcome [them] to this country whether it be for business, study or whatever the purpose," he said. "However, we can't assume they're all good guys. One of the premises that has borne out has been shown to be true, is that some individuals that have been shown to be associated with terrorism will come in and bluff their way through an interview with the INS in an attempt not to draw attention to themselves. Indeed, the al-Qaida manuals that have been recovered by the U.S. military indicate that one of the basis of operation is to go ahead and try to comply with immigration laws to the extent possible."
Mr. Kolbach says reports suggesting there have been widespread arrests of Muslim visitors to the United States are not true. "Some people allege that thousands of people were being imprisoned for extended periods of time for no reason. The only temporary detentions were for those who came in and were 'out of status' - that is to say, they broke Federal immigration laws and before the INS could release them, they had to do the right thing," he said. "That is, if they're here illegally and are from a state that is known to sponsor terrorism and our State Department designates it as such, they want to do a background check, contact the FBI and see if they're on any 'watch lists.' "
Justice Department official Kolbach says the vast majority of registrants in the program have faced no problem. "At this point, there are 119 people in detention out of 41,000 who have come in for domestic enrollment," he said. "Only one person has been deported; only one."
But Kareem Shora of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says there have been some problems in the implementation of the visitor registration program. "It's completely understandable to require visitors to our country to let us know where they are," Mr. Shora said. "It's a valid security measure. However, the implementation of those requirements is troubling. For example, let's look at what's happening on the ground when this program was initiated. It is clear that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was not equipped to handle the requirements placed on it by the Justice Department."
"We've had numerous examples of abuses by INS offices misinterpreting guidelines," he added, "requiring individuals who are not supposed to register to register, and turning back people who are supposed to register and telling them they don't have to register."
Mr. Shora says among the challenges facing officials is classifying registrants' nationalities and whether their home countries have links to terrorist activity. "What do you consider this gentlemen to be? He identified himself as Palestinian. Lebanon does not consider him to be a citizen or national of that country," he noted. "Bahrain does not consider him to be a citizen of that country. When he called the INS office in Atlanta, they told him they didn't know. So they told him, to be on the safe side, come in and register. So he did. He didn't face any difficulties in that registration. However, according to the information we know of so far, this gentleman should not have been required to register."
The Justice Department's Kris Kolbach responds to Mr. Shora's criticism by saying that there are specific criteria for determining a registrant's nationality. "The answer to the question if the INS officer didn't know and it's a difficult one when a person has multiple nationalities, is that it's the nationality when the person entered the country," explained Mr. Kolbach. "That's the nationality that's used for registration."
Kareem Shora of the American Arab Anti-defamation Committee says U.S. government officials could do more to make the registration process easier for visitors from Muslim majority countries. "We've repeatedly inquired with the Justice Department as to why they don't issue public service announcements or send letters to affected individuals," he said. "Or work with embassies affected by this program so that people who are lawfully in this country can comply with the law. Let's remember that people who walk into those INS offices are doing it voluntarily. They're doing it to comply with the law to remain lawfully in the U.S."
Although the new registration program for visitors is now targeted for those coming from mostly Muslim countries, Kris Kolbach says the program will be expanded in coming years. "The registration will eventually be universal, by 2005," he said. "Congress has mandated that we have a comprehensive entry system for all people that come on temporary visas. Right now, what we're doing at the border is registering people who meet certain intelligence-based profiles. That's already led to the registering of people from 149 different countries all over the earth."