Now you see him, now you don't

The amazing I.N.S. disappearing act

On Jan. 10, Pamela and Yared Woldu visited the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service building in downtown Atlanta for what they thought would be a routine affair.

Yared Woldu was answering U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's cattle call for a new "special registration." The "special" part is that it affects only non-citizens born in 23 Muslim and Arab countries, as well as North Korea. The day Woldu registered was the deadline for men from 14 countries, including Woldu's native Eritrea.

Woldu, a convenience store clerk who lives with his American-born wife, son and four stepchildren in Decatur, was not aware of the horror stories surrounding an earlier INS roundup. Hundreds of men, predominantly Iranians living in Los Angeles, were arrested and detained when they showed up for special registration in December. Some of them remain locked up, their families unaware of why they're being held or, in some cases, where.

But based on what Woldu heard from his attorney's secretary, he had nothing to worry about. He says he was up to date with his paperwork and had applied for a green card, citing his marriage to a U.S. citizen. He expected only to be fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated.

But even after his fingers were inked and his picture taken, he was told to keep waiting. The Woldus and their 1-year-old son had been waiting since 7 a.m. It was approaching 1 p.m.

Pamela Woldu had had enough. She stepped outside for a cigarette. As she smoked, an INS officer inside called her husband's name. He was taken into a room. He says the questioning didn't go very far. As soon as he verified that he was Yared Woldu, he was cuffed and shuttled into the basement.

An hour after Pamela Woldu returned to the waiting room, two INS officers told her to leave without her husband, she says. He was being deported.

No one would tell her why he was being held, where he would be housed or how she could reach him. "I went down there with my husband and our son," she says. "And I'm returning home a single parent."

The INS office in Washington, D.C., did not answer CL's requests for comment on special registration; the Atlanta office claims not to accept media inquiries.

On Feb. 21, the eyes of protesters, the police and TV cameras, were fixed on Pamela Woldu. She was eager, against the backdrop of the INS building, to deliver the story of her husband's disappearance. She has no qualms protesting a government that can't deport her.

Yared Woldu doesn't share that sentiment. It was an almost comical role reversal for a husband who had always been quick to talk politics and a wife who'd been indifferent to such things.

Woldu had known all too well how a government — Eritrea's — could cause very real pain. He came to America nine years ago to escape religious persecution of Christians in the Muslim-dominant country. Here, he also appreciated the opportunity to speak of the American government honestly, with a mix of respect and skepticism. Eritreans do not openly question their government.

Now it was his wife at the pulpit. Yared Woldu hovered near his Ford Explorer in a parking lot across the street from the INS. He says he didn't want to draw too much attention to himself.

Yared Woldu recalls Jan. 10 as a day rife with confusion. He says he pleaded with the INS officer to look at his documents. He says he was held in the basement for five hours, then loaded into a van. He says he fell asleep on the way to wherever he was going. In the split second when he woke, he thought he was at home. Then he realized his wrists were bound.

The van stopped in Gadsden, Ala., at the Etowah County Jail. The jail contracts with the INS to hold men facing deportation.

According to testimony last month before the Senate finance committee, more than 26,000 men have undergone special registration since its inception last fall. About 2,700 of them — more than one in 10 — have been detained. The INS reports that 81 detainees are still being held and that 36 were wanted on felony charges. But it's unclear whether any actual registrants had terrorist ties. What is clear is that none of the Sept. 11 hijackers likely would have been detained by special registration, according to separate testimony in a joint House-Senate hearing.

This, from a $362 million annual program that was meant to curb terrorism.

Congress voted this month to continue funding special registration. But some members are asking for documents showing why men who had pending applications for green cards were detained.

The night Pamela Woldu learned her husband was taken away, she was interviewed with her husband's attorney on the 11 p.m. news. The following afternoon, an unidentified woman who saw her on TV called to say her husband might be in Gadsden.

Five days later, she got permission to visit the jail. She found her husband in a baggy green jumpsuit, which sets deportation inmates apart from the rest of the inmates who wear orange. Neither had any idea why he was there. His lawyer, Ben Guile, says Yared Woldu didn't even need to register, since he'd applied for a green card well in advance of special registration.

And just as senselessly as Yared Woldu arrived at the jail Jan. 10, he was released Jan. 16 — as if nothing had happened.

But to Woldu, much is different. He could only listen on Feb. 21, as his wife and others protested the treatment of men like him.

To speak his mind about the American government is a luxury lost.

"Now I don't really like talking against the government too much," he says. "If they send me back [to Eritrea], that's bad for me. I know what I'm going to face if I go back there."