The politics of profiling

By interrogating certain visitors, are we protecting ourselves, hurting them, or both?

For the past three months, U.S. visa-holders from certain Arab and Muslim countries had been living in fear of Dec. 16. In Atlanta, as across the country, foreigners — many of them enrolled in college or awaiting green cards — were expecting the worst: arrest, detainment and deportation. And in some parts of the country, that's exactly what they got.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, following marching orders from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, has begun to hone its devices for tracking foreign visitors — or at least some foreign visitors.

As of Sept. 11, males 16 or older born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria have to submit to questioning, picture-taking and fingerprinting in order to get a U.S. visa. Men from those countries who already held visas were supposed to visit their local INS office by Dec. 16. Fourteen additional Muslim countries, as well as North Korea, have since been added to Ashcroft's list. Men born in those places must visit the INS by January and February.

Clearly, the list reflects the government's resolve to keep a close eye on visitors from states that sponsor terrorism. But at what cost? Opinions of the government's National Security Entry-Exit Registration System fall on two sides. On one, the system is perceived as a necessary precaution.

"There seems to be a logical basis for wanting more information from people who came from these particular countries," says local immigration attorney Marshall Cohen. "People that are planning to hurt the government or other people in this country should be removed."

To others, the system is seen as an infringement of civil liberties along the lines of the interment of the Japanese during World War II or the questioning of Communist sympathizers during the Cold War. There is also a faction of foreign students and equal-rights advocates who say the special registration criteria are arbitrary and the process ineffective.

Besides being a "clear case of profiling," special registration represents but a token attempt at the Herculean task of rooting out terrorists, according to Dale Schwartz, a professor of immigration law at Emory University.

"If the desired end is to monitor potential terrorists in the country, it's ridiculous," Schwartz says. "Because a terrorist is not going to register. A terrorist can get phony green cards, passports, driver's licenses. They have a network of criminal elements that for a price can get them those documents."

Similar skepticism was raised in a joint House-Senate intelligence hearing after the special registration criteria, outlined in the USA PATRIOT Act, went into effect.

"None of the hijackers, the 19, would have been caught up in this ... system, would they?" Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., asked during the October hearing. "Maybe one or two of them?"

Joseph Greene, INS assistant commissioner for investigations, answered: "It's unclear."

What is clear, at least to those affected by the special registration, is its chilling effect on Arab and Muslim communities — both in America and abroad.

A Georgia Tech engineering student, who asked not to be named for fear of INS backlash, told CL that when he registered last week, an INS official asked him about his friends, his movements and his study plans, as well as his parents' birth dates and the airline he flew when he came to America in the mid-1990s. He says that even students like him, with nothing to hide, fear the INS might not trust their answers and will deport them. And that, he says, has caused many Arabs and Muslims to question whether it's a good idea to study in the U.S. at all.

"Maybe that's what [the U.S. government] is hoping," said the student, whose parents were Palestinian refugees and have since earned asylum in America. "I don't want to be suspicious, but I have a feeling that people don't like foreign students coming here and talking about U.S. foreign policy. We are the easier target. They can't do anything to citizens, but students they can intimidate with registration."

"We've already seen a significant decline in foreign students being registered in American campuses," according to Rashid Naim, head of the north Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "They prefer to go to Europe and other places where they are not going to be treated as criminals."

Bolstering Naim's claim that the U.S. can be a turn-off are the horror stories that cropped up in Los Angeles in the wake of special registration. On the Dec. 16 deadline, hundreds of people were arrested and detained — some of them strip-searched and corralled in the Los Angeles INS office's basement, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Although the Justice Department has not yet released figures on the total number of arrests and deportations stemming from special registration, Ashcroft cited 179 at a Nov. 7 press conference.

"Some were wanted on arrest warrants, some were inadmissible to the United States because of serious criminal records, some attempted to enter using false pretenses or false documents," Ashcroft said. "If today or tomorrow a terrorist was identified by [the new special registration], it would not be the first time."

While America struggles to protect itself from a very real threat and, at the same time, protect the rights of foreign visitors who wish America no harm, other countries see America's balancing act as horribly skewed. To many societies outside the U.S., special registration reeks of injustice.

"This move ... harks back to America's witch-hunts against Communists during the Cold War," states an October editorial in Malaysia's New Straits Times. "Executed on a generalised approach and sometimes on flimsy evidence, it had the potential to ruin lives."

Even mild-mannered Canada has spoken against special registration. "This doesn't make sense for the two of us as countries of immigrants to choose [who to question based on] the place where you are born, which might not even be your nationality in some respects," Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Bill Graham told Secretary of State Colin Powell at a November press conference. "How could that determine whether or not you are a terrorist?"

Naim, with the Georgia chapter of CAIR, says a person's birthplace alone ought not to subject him to scrutiny that other foreign visitors are spared.

"I can understand the concerns that some people might have about foreigners who are in this country," Naim says. "But if we do allow people in, we should treat them with dignity or we shouldn't allow them in. I think that undermining the dignity of anybody living in this country eventually is going to lead to undermining of all of our dignities."