Jewish groups led by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society are preparing a letter to President Bush to express misgivings about the detention last month of hundreds of Middle Eastern men in Southern California who reported to federal immigration offices to comply with a new post-September 11 visitor registration program.
Three weeks after the temporary detentions sparked an uproar among civil liberties groups, and with the next visitor registration deadline fast approaching, the letter is intended to demonstrate that Jewish organizations “have been quite concerned about how the program was implemented,” said HIAS’s Washington representative, Gideon Aronoff.
“Our understanding is that the program was implemented in a harsh and abusive manner in California, much more so than in other parts of the country,” Aronoff said, emphasizing that he was speaking only for HIAS. “There’s concern about the inconsistent implementation, which shows some major lapses in oversight on the part of the authorities.”
Representatives of the American Jewish Committee and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism told the Forward that their groups hope to sign onto the letter.
The Anti-Defamation League appeared at press time to be the only major national Jewish group to have spoken out on the detentions controversy. In a December 20 statement issued from its Los Angeles office, the ADL expressed “concern” regarding the detentions and alleged mistreatment. It urged the Immigration and Naturalization Service “to ensure compliance with civil rights laws and disclose the procedures used in the detentions of these boys.”
The mass detentions took place in Southern California December 16, when hundreds of those who showed up at INS offices to register were detained, with many sent off to area jails, some for days. The program required registration by males over the age of 16 who are in the United States on temporary visas from countries designated “state sponsors of terrorism”: Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. Advocates for the detainees alleged that some of those detained were in the process of regularizing their status in the United States and that some were held in overly crowded facilities. The detainees included a handful of Iranian Jews.
The detentions resulted in a public relations fiasco. Various members of Congress, newspaper editorialists, and ethnic and civil liberties organizations expressed dismay over reports of mistreatment.
A Justice Department spokesman, Jorge Martinez, told the Forward that more than over 400 people in Southern California were detained while background security checks were being completed. Many were released “within a couple hours,” he said. Martinez said that only a minority of registrants were detained, and that they were “people who have violated our immigration laws,” such as having expired visas, and that “a handful” had criminal backgrounds. He said that at present all but about 20 of the detainees — “most of them are criminals, and others are administrative violators” — have been released pending their immigration hearings.
Martinez attributed difficulties in processing detainees to the large population of visitors from Iran and the fact that many “chose to wait until the last day to register.” He insisted, however, that “there is no evidence of any mistreatment.”
Government officials have maintained that the “special registration” of men from specific countries is part of a comprehensive effort to begin tracking visitors to the United States.
Aronoff said that the letter HIAS is drafting would be “very constructive.” He said it would likely recommend that officials protect the rights of registrants, not deport those with “legitimate or pending claims to legal status,” establish “clear and uniform procedures for registration” and work to ensure that people are aware of the requirements of the program.
Even before the detentions in California, controversy had arisen over the rule requiring registration by visitors from particular countries, almost all of them nations with a Muslim majority. Aronoff said that within the Jewish community there are a variety of opinions as to whether such targeted registrations are fair and effective in the war against terrorism. He said that the letter HIAS is drafting will not take a stance on the issue and that HIAS has not yet taken a public position on it.
The AJCommittee’s director of domestic policy, Jeffrey Sinensky, said that while his organization “has been concerned with the implementation of the program” it is “supportive of the concept of the registration and the finger-printing of Middle East visa-holders.”
“Obviously there seems to be much more of a propensity for people of these countries to be engaged in this kind of [terrorist] activity,” he said. “It would be rather foolish to bring in people from Iceland to fingerprint in the first instance.”
Leaders of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation have been outspoken in criticizing the treatment of the detainees. The chair of the group’s Young Leadership Committee, Elliott Benjamin, said that the federation believes that between 12 and 35 Iranian Jews were detained in Southern California. He said that it is the federation’s understanding that the INS was not prepared for as many registrants as showed up. He said detainees were apparently held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at the INS’s Los Angeles offices before being dispatched to jails. He said the federation is fearful that members of religious minority groups would be deported to Iran, and is also concerned with the fate of those who failed register before the deadline because they were not aware of the program, which he said was poorly publicized.
Nevertheless, Benjamin said that the federation has “absolutely no problems” with the registration program per se. His group did not participate in the public demonstrations against the detentions, which he said could be used for anti-American propaganda by the government of Iran.
One group that has spoken out on the issue is Los Angeles’s left-wing Progressive Jewish Alliance. The alliance signed onto a statement by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, along with several civil rights, ethnic and Muslim organizations, calling on the Justice Department to “scrap” the registration program or “at the very least” extend the deadlines for registration.
The alliance’s executive director, Daniel Sokatch, said that his group would participate in a monitoring effort at INS offices sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Committee during the current round of registrations. The next deadline, for men and boys from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, is January 10.