INS registration spurs Muslim activism

As owner of a restaurant chain called James Coney Island and president of a large civic group in Texas, Ghulam Bombaywala could hardly be more American. "I've been involved in mainstream politics for the last 20 years," said Bombaywala, who leads the Pakistani-American Association of Greater Houston, "and I always told all the Pakistanis, `You need to get involved in the mainstream.' Nobody was taking it seriously. Now, they're taking it very seriously."

"Now," in this case, means since December 18, when Pakistani students, workers, visitors, and other temporary-visa holders-all men over age 16-were added to the growing list of Muslims in the United States who are required to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

More than 1,000 people from the Houston area showed up for a town hall meeting sponsored by the association, with the help of Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, to distribute information about the program that immigrant groups refer to as "special registration."

Before special registration, Bombaywala's group focused on providing services for seniors and charities in the Pakistani community. Now, the association devotes all its resources to helping people prepare for registration. The group is holding meetings, educating small groups, and providing space for registrants to meet with volunteer lawyers on Saturdays to learn about the program. "The whole community has revived and gotten more united than it's been in the last 30 years," said Bombaywala, who repeatedly credits the regional INS director, Hipolito Acosta, for his help in getting information out to Pakistani residents. "Acosta has been very good to the community," he said.

Indeed, special registration has now become the singular driving issue-and sometimes organizing principle-for disparate Arab-American, Muslim American, and South Asian-American groups across the country. Those who have to register are men on non-immigrant visas from countries considered to be state sponsors of terrorism, or from those in which Al Qaeda is believed to be operating. That's 25 countries in total, and all but one, North Korea, are predominantly Muslim. As a result, many Muslims in the United States, and overseas, feel as if the Muslim immigrant community is being targeted.

It's not so much the registration program itself as the way it is being implemented that has proved most controversial. "Every government in the world has the right to register immigrants, but the way they are doing it resonates very badly for the American government, because the perception is that it's only targeted on Muslims," says Zahid Bukhari, director of a project at Georgetown University called Muslims in American Public Square.

A December debacle in Los Angeles didn't help that perception. More than 700 men, most of whom were Iranian, overwhelmed the INS office there on the last day of registration. The office responded by handcuffing 553 of the men and detaining them.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council, which had worked with the INS before the December deadline to educate Muslims and encourage them to cooperate, responded to the arrests by protesting and launching a human-rights monitoring project for subsequent registration deadlines.

Although the special registration program has nabbed 36 felons, many activists argue that most of the people spending their days finding registration forms and traveling to government offices to be photographed, fingerprinted, and interviewed are properly documented students and cab drivers, not terrorists. "It's a waste of resources, requiring the law-abiding to go to the INS and tell them what they're doing," says Michael Maggio, an immigration lawyer in Washington. "The agents doing that work are the very same agents who are supposed to be out looking for Al Qaeda and foreign nationals who've absconded."

Furthermore, Maggio says, confusion at the INS has resulted in a patchwork of outcomes. "If you go to Baltimore, your case is treated entirely differently from the Washington district office," in Arlington, Va., he said. Despite promises from INS headquarters, some offices haven't allowed attorneys to accompany the men during registration. Some offices arrested men whose visas had expired, even if their applications for legal status were pending within the INS's own yearlong processing backlog, and then set bonds for their release at more than $10,000. Other offices set bonds in the hundreds of dollars, and some made no such arrests at all. Some men are asked about where and how often they pray; some aren't. "It's poor in conception, and terrible in execution," Maggio said.

The resulting chaos has led local ethnic organizations in the affected communities to focus solely on helping members with the special registration process. And a lot of people who arrived in the last quarter-century and thought they could keep their heads down and work hard to become Americans have discovered another part of the American dream: politics.

"After Justice began targeting Muslims, they began organizing very fast," Bukhari said. "As with other ethno-religious groups that had problems and turmoil, like the German, Irish, Japanese, and Jewish Americans, they realized they have only the American way, which is to organize an alliance and fight back."

In Chicago, an unusual organizer for the large Muslim immigrant community there exemplifies just how far and fast the changes have come. Ifti Naseem is a flamboyant, openly gay poet who has been in the country since 1974. Thanks to the fear and confusion surrounding special registration, Naseem's political experience as co-founder of a local organization for gays and lesbians is more important to his fellow immigrants than his love life. "A Muslim would never stand next to a gay person," he says, "but now I'm a leader, which I didn't want to be!" Now Naseem's radio show is fielding calls from worried families, and he's preparing to co-anchor a rally on February 15 that is sponsored by more than 90 local groups.

In Washington, an almost-defunct coalition of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian groups has resumed its Wednesday strategy meetings at the Arab American Institute. Special registration "brought together a range of ethnic and racial groups who never had this kind of challenge before," said AAI President James Zogby. "And it's largely John Ashcroft who helped spur this effort together." Zogby doesn't exactly consider this a point in Ashcroft's favor, though. "It's a disaster. This is not how to protect and defend our Constitution."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations says that its caseload has been swamped by special registration. "Civil-rights issues have become a major common denominator among Muslim and Arab-American organizations," said Executive Director Nihad Awad. He interrupts the interview to field a call from Arizona, where a CAIR representative is trying to help a woman find her husband, a student who was detained on January 10 for violating his visa by not taking enough credits at school. Returning to the phone, Awad said, "These kinds of policies are spreading fear among many innocent people, and giving a signal to the community that you are all considered suspects."

Pakistanis are the biggest immigrant community affected by special registration, and they have developed the most robust response. After trying, unsuccessfully, to have Pakistan removed from the special registration requirements, Pakistanis turned, with help from their Embassy in Washington, to preparing for registration-through extensive meetings, mailings, community organizing, hotlines, support centers for detainees and their families, and a legal defense fund. Before the registration program, the national umbrella consortium of the Pakistani-American National Alliance had only five member groups; now it has more than 20.

Agha Saeed, president of the Pakistani Democratic Forum and a PANA organizer, says that registration has reverberated through Pakistani-American politics on three levels. First, local community groups have seized the initiative from Pakistan's diplomats. "Secondly, leadership has shifted from elite and professional Pakistani-Americans, like the physicians, to grassroots organizations. And third, people have realized the importance of working through the mainstream American organizations."

In Chicago, Ifti Naseem thinks that the INS program could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Muslim immigrants. "They thought they were very American, and the rug was pulled out from under their feet," he said. "Now they feel like it's their home, and so now they have to fight for their rights."