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by James Sterngold Sunday, Dec. 22, 2002 at 10:10 PM

Buried in the 13th paragraph: ... "he was sent to the basement of the Federal Building downtown and held in a room of about 400 square feet with roughly 120 people."

Iranians furious over INS arrests
Abuse alleged after men agreed to register in L.A.

James Sterngold, Chronicle Staff Writer Saturday, December 21, 2002


Los Angeles -- The noisy demonstrations in front of the Federal Building here this week are over, but members of Southern California's Iranian American community are still seething over the chaotic arrests and alleged mistreatment of foreign-born men arrested while voluntarily submitting to a special registration process.

They say many innocent men remain behind bars.

On Friday, many of those held told of badly overcrowded conditions and abusive treatment. Even though most of those arrested under the new homeland security program were released, their lawyers said, some had been taken to jails hundreds of miles from their homes -- without their families having any idea how long they would be held or how to get in touch.

Members of the community estimated that at least 500 people had been arrested in Los Angeles. The Immigration and Naturalization Service at first refused to provide any figures, then said the number was closer to 200, which several lawyers disputed.

INS officials confirmed Friday that a number of the men arrested earlier this week in the Bay Area on suspicion that they had violated the terms of their visas had been flown to the San Diego area.

Randall Hamud, an attorney in San Diego, said he had been contacted by the family of one man, a 36-year-old Iranian-born Canadian citizen from San Jose, but had not been able to locate him in the system yet.

"We believe he has a valid work visa, and yet he's just disappeared," Hamud said.

The program, instituted after the Sept. 11 attacks, sets deadlines for certain foreign-born men over 16 years old and with temporary visas to report to the INS to be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted. Those born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria were required to report by Dec. 16.

Arriving to do so on Monday, many found themselves unexpectedly detained for what the INS said were immigration violations.

INS officials defended their actions this week, and said the process was handled in an orderly manner. They denied widespread accounts that some of those detained had been abused.

Shahin Hajizadeh, who was arrested on Monday and held for two days, disagreed.

Hajizadeh, a 22-year-old pre-med student in Los Angeles, was born in Iran and then lived in Germany for 10 years. In an interview Friday, he said he came to the United States three years ago to live with his father, an American citizen. He said he applied years ago for permanent resident status, has a valid work permit and paid taxes on his job in a hospital. He was recently told, he said, that his application for permanent residence would soon go through.

He said he was shocked when he showed up on Monday for the registration only to be told he was here illegally and was arrested. But it got worse, he said, when he was sent to the basement of the Federal Building downtown and held in a room of about 400 square feet with roughly 120 people.

There was no place to sit, one bathroom, no water and not enough food for everyone, he said. He added that he had to sleep on the concrete floor without a blanket, and later was transported in a packed van for several hours to a cell in the desert town of Lancaster (Los Angeles County).

Arriving there at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, he said, he was strip-searched, and then forced to wait in a cold room. By the time he and about a dozen others had been processed, they were able to sleep for only about an hour before being awakened for the long drive back to downtown Los Angeles.

When he rose only slowly because of his exhaustion, he said, he was kicked in the ribs by an angry guard. He was finally released late Wednesday.

He may have been lucky compared to Afshin Sharifi, a 35-year-old computer engineer from Orange County.

According to his sister Afshan, he was arrested unexpectedly on Thursday, Dec. 12, when he went in to register. She said they had lived in the United States for 13 years and had applied properly for permanent status. They received their approvals a year ago, she said, and were awaiting notification that their permanent visas had been completed.

But her brother was arrested and held throughout the week, then told he could be released on $15,000 bail, she said. Even after she showed up with the bail money, Afshan Sharifi said, immigration officials said they had misplaced her brother's paperwork and that he would remain jailed through the weekend.

"This is so shocking because his status is legal," she said.

Many described the INS round-up as a fiasco that was unwarranted.

Immigration attorney Zohreh Mizrahi said few of the arrests were likely necessary. "I never imagined I would face this kind of thing in this country," she said.


INS officials said Friday afternoon that all but 20 people had been released. Those 20 are still being held "because they are of interest to various law enforcement organizations," said an immigration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. She added that each would be evaluated individually, and some may end up being deported.

"People are upset not because of the regulation itself," said Ara Aroustamian, an Iranian American lawyer in Los Angeles. "I thought, 'OK, I understand the concern of the administration.' But now people in this community are frustrated because they feel they've been singled out unjustifiably."

"Why would an Iranian come here?" Aroustamian asked. "To escape this kind of thing."

INS deadlines
Upcoming registration deadlines for some foreign visitors without permanent U.S. residency status to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

-- Jan. 10: Citizens or nationals of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea,

Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates or Yemen who came to the U.S. as non-immigrants before Oct. 1, 2002.

-- Jan. 13 to Feb. 21: Pakistani, Armenian and Saudi Arabian males 16 and older who are not permanent residents or asylum seekers.

E-mail James Sterngold at jsterngold@sfchronicle.com.

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