Families of jailed Middle Eastern immigrants say rights violated
SANDRA MARQUEZ, Associated Press Writer Thursday, December 19, 2002
(12-19) 18:24 PST LOS ANGELES (AP) --
Gisroo Mohajeri clutched her pregnant belly on the steps of the downtown federal building Thursday and uttered a mother's lament: "I feel so guilty," she sobbed.
Three days after urging her 16-year-old, Iranian-born son to voluntarily register with immigration officials under a new program, he now faces deportation proceedings.
Mohajeri and relatives of the hundreds of Middle Eastern men and teens who have been detained in California this week say they feel betrayed by the country that once offered them a safe haven. Even worse for many family members is the feeling that they acted as unknowing accomplices to the U.S. government.
"I blame myself. Why I brought my son here and put him in jail. Why? Just because I followed the law," Mohajeri cried. "I made a mistake. I shouldn't do that. But I did."
Immigration lawyers estimate at least 500 Middle Eastern immigrants have been detained in California since Monday, when male visa holders, age 16 and older, from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria were asked to report to local immigration offices in order to be fingerprinted and photographed or risk being deported.
Another 500 immigrants are believed to have been arrested since the registration process began in November. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has refused to release any official figures on the number of detentions.
"We need this program to better protect our borders," said Francisco Arcaute, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "We have a better idea of who is in this country and what business they are here for... I trust if there were any mistakes, they will be corrected for a future deadline."
The special registration, as it is officially known, is part of new federal security guidelines that resulted from the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In the next phase, male visa holders from 13 additional countries -- including Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon and North Korea -- will be required to register by Jan. 10. Males from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan must register by Feb. 21.
The regulation applies to those here on temporary visas, including tourists and students. Naturalized citizens, diplomats, green card holders and those who were granted political asylum are exempt.
The program has provoked the ire of a coalition of statewide civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which issued a statement Thursday calling on the government to "scrap the flawed and misguided" program, or to at least extend the deadlines so that complaints can be addressed.
"The INS roundup is confused, ineffective and deceptive," said Salam Al-Mayarati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "It is clear these measures erode our freedom, yield no enhanced security and serve to damage America's global image."
Said Arcaute: "They should immediately notify INS headquarters in Washington. We are glad to listen to their concerns."
At least one immigration lawyer saw some cause for optimism. Michelle Taheripour, an immigration lawyer working to secure the release of a dozen of her clients, said INS officials had agreed late Thursday to waive bail for detainees whose bonds had been set below $5,000.
As many as 300 detainees were expected to be released by nightfall, she said. Those detainees will be asked to return to immigration offices at a later date for questioning, she said.
"It's a great relief to actually tell loved ones to go home. They are actually going to see their family members by this evening," Taheripour said.
Zahra Modjarrad, a psychologist who fled Iran on foot for Pakiston 22 years ago, said she too felt relief when her medical student son was released from detention Wednesday.
But she worried about the long-term emotional effects of his detention, which included a body search with a flashlight, she said.
"His spirit has been broken very badly because he was the person who never had any problems in his life," Modjarrad said.
She said the compassion of an INS agent who interviewed her son offered her some relief. On Thursday, she and the agent, Linda Novak, hugged on the steps of the federal building.
Novak said she felt sorry for Modjarrad's son.
"I was just so sad, I felt like a worm," she said. "He was not the kind of person that this is pulling in."
Mohajeri, nearly seven months pregnant with her second child, is praying officials will have compassion for her son. Hossein Ahmadi, 16, faces deportation to England where he lived until a dispute with his father, his mother said.
"He ran away from England to live with me, and right now immigration tells me he has to come back to be deported to England," Mohajeri said. "He doesn't have anybody there."
Ahmadi, a high school junior who plays soccer and excels at science and literature, has called home twice to complain about the conditions in his detention cell.
"'I didn't do anything. Why do they treat me like a criminal person?"' his mother recalled him saying. "I said no, be calm. We are following your status... What can I do? What should I say? I was stupid. I brought my son here. I followed this law." http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/news/archive/2002/12/19/state2022EST0159.DTL