| John Ashcroft
Los Angeles, Dec. 25 (Reuters): The US attorney general and the nation’s immigration service were hit by a class action civil liberties lawsuit yesterday over the mass detentions of immigrants from Muslim countries who came forward to register under new anti-terrorism rules.
A coalition of Arab and Muslim groups sought an immediate injunction against further arrests and alleged that large numbers of men who came forward to register in southern California last week had been unlawfully detained.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, followed outrage over the detentions of of hundreds of immigrants — most of them Iranians — who presented themselves at immigration offices under the anti-terrorism programme and who were taken away in handcuffs and locked up, sometimes for days, for overstaying their visas.
The department of justice did not return calls seeking comment on the lawsuit which named Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service as defendants.
Local immigration lawyers estimated last week that about 1,000 men and boys were detained in standing-room-only centres, and forced to sleep on concrete floors, under a system designed to track potential “terrorists” but which instead locked up many caught in the lengthy process for obtaining permanent residence.
Official figures from the department of justice and the INS put the number of detentions in California at less than 250. But yesterday, officials said about 20 were still detained in the Los Angeles area, five in San Diego and a handful in San Francisco. The men were detained under a post-September 11 programme which requires males over 16, without permanent residence, from 20 Arab or Muslim countries to register with authorities.
Peter Schey, president of the Los Angeles-based Centre for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and the lead attorney for the six, unnamed plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said mass registration was irrational because “no undocumented terrorist will come forward”.
Schey said the lawsuit was not about resisting registration but about the way it was being implemented. “The programme is being used as a scam to lure people into INS offices supposedly to register, when what they really face is arrest, detention and even deportation despite their pending petitions to legalise their status which the INS refuses to process,” he said.
The registration deadline for the first group, which included Iranians from the 600,000-strong Iranian exile community in the Los Angeles area, fell on December 16. Deadlines are approaching in January and February for citizens of Afghanistan, Algeria, Yemen, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The lawsuit asked for an injunction ordering the government not to arrest any other people without a warrant and to prevent the deportation or holding without bail of detainees with avenues available to legalise their status. It said the detentions of otherwise law-abiding immigrants “seriously undermines prospects for future compliance”. The lawsuit was filed by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Alliance of Iranian Americans, Council on American-Islamic Relations and the National Council of Pakistani Americans.