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Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 00:42 GMT 01:42 UK
Arab-Americans fear registration system
US airport
The US says up to 200,000 visitors will have to register

Gus Shihab emigrated to the United States from Syria in 1979.

Now an immigration attorney in Washington DC, he says his Middle Eastern clients are concerned by a new atmosphere of intimidation and mistreatment.

Recently, he took a call from one of his clients, an expectant mother, who is worried that as her due date approaches, her mother and brother will have difficulty coming to the US.

She fears they will have difficulty entering the US because of a newly expanded programme to register foreign visitors who are either from or who have visited Middle Eastern and North African countries.

Changing list of countries

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the new programme, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System in June.
US Attorney General John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft says system a vital part of war on terror

"The vulnerabilities of our immigration system became starkly clear on 11 September," Mr Ashcroft said. "This system will expand substantially America's scrutiny of those foreign visitors who may present an elevated national security risk. And it will provide a vital line of defence in the war against terrorism."

The system would require 'non-immigrant visitors' from countries deemed to be of highest terrorism risk to register with the US Government and be photographed and fingerprinted.

Visitors who have been to these countries and do not provide a satisfactory explanation to US immigration officials also would be required to register.

The countries on the list will change depending on current US intelligence, according to Department of Justice spokesman Jorge Martinez.

The department estimates that between 100,000 to 200,000 visitors will be subject to the registration programme, he said.

The initial process, when visitors will be photographed and fingerprinted will take about five to 10 minutes, Mr Martinez said.

Intimidation

Syria is one of the countries from which visitors will face increased scrutiny. The US State Department considers Syria a state sponsor of terrorism.

But visitors from Jordan and Egypt, some of the closest Arab allies of the US, might also be required to register, according to US embassies in those nations.

Coming into the country, we've had people just sent back, detained, mistreated

Gus Shihab, immigration lawyer

The Syrian mother of Mr Shihab's client is 60-years-old. "It's a shame that this blanket law applies to the good and the bad," he said.

And his client is even more concerned that her brother will face difficulty in coming to the US. The new system singles out men aged 16 to 45 from some Muslim countries.

But problems for Middle Easterners in the US began long before the roll out of this new registration programme, Mr Shihab said.

"Coming into the country, we've had people just sent back, detained, mistreated, basically with interrogation and intimidation. It's unfortunate that we've come into this situation after 9/11," he said.

He tells the story of another client, a Palestinian national seeking political asylum in the US.
US-Mexican border crossing
Visitors at all 300 US ports of entry will be subject to registration

His application was denied, and he was ordered deported. He was given the opportunity to leave voluntarily after a second application for political asylum was denied.

But five days prior to his voluntary departure, his house was raided by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS). His children watched as he was taken away.

The next day he was released, and the INS admitted to making a mistake, Mr Shihab said.

But he is not opposed to a system of screening foreign visitors, but suggests that it take place in US embassies in the visitors home countries, not at airports after long international flights.

Civil liberties concerns

The United States government defended the plan saying that many European countries already have such systems in place.

For instance, in the UK, aliens must register within seven days of entering the country and re-register whenever they change address, job or university.

But civil liberties groups, some members of Congress and Arab and Muslim American groups have criticised the US programme saying it singled out Muslims from Middle Eastern countries.

"It's pretty obvious that this plan won't work at anything except allowing the government to essentially 'pick on' people who haven't done anything wrong but happen to come from the administration's idea of the wrong side of the global tracks," said Lucas Guttentag, Director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project.

"Selective enforcement of any law based on unchangeable characteristics like race, ethnicity or national origin is at its core un-American."


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01 Oct 02 | Americas
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