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BOSTON—Harvard undergraduates joined area students and activists Friday morning to spread legal information to a stream of Middle Eastern and African men required to register at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston.
Three Harvard students joined a small cadre of volunteers cuddling clipboards and sharing tips and warnings with male non-immigrants as they entered the building for “Special Registration” with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
The new registration program is just one of a wide variety of new federal requirements established in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to track non-immigrants who fit the government’s profile of possible terrorists.
“The United States will always welcome visitors from foreign countries, but after the tragic events of September 11th, it is clear that we have to understand better who is entering and exiting our country,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said this fall when he announced the program.
But on Friday, the view of registration was much more stark.
Standing under a gray granite overhang as snow accumulated in the Government Center plaza, two students carried poster boards reading, “We are here to defend immigrant rights. Talk to us before you register with the INS,” in large print.
On the last day of registration for nationals of 18 countries—such as Somalia, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates—a broad cross-section of the population stood in line to be counted by the INS.
The volunteers warned non-immigrants that others have been detained and even deported during the photographing, fingerprinting and interview session that the INS now requires to maintain legal status.
In some instances, the volunteers said, men coming to register have been arrested for lacking documents that they had not yet received due to INS backlog.
At the JFK Building, a man in pressed trousers and a leather jacket stopped before the volunteers. He clung to the strap of a bag hitched over his shoulder and listened as they told him that he might not emerge from the building as soon as he had planned.
“I had no idea,” the man said, crossing his arms tightly and raising his eyebrows. “I was under the impression that the whole thing would take maybe five minutes.”
The volunteers offered him a card listing his rights as well as phone numbers for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and legal representation.
They asked him to leave his address book with them, so that they could contact his acquaintances if he were to be detained inside the building.
He fumbled in his pockets for some source of source of personal information. Passing a police officer, he joined a line of men that wound through the JFK building’s lobby between cloth tapes.
“This is a kind of experiment,” said Nancy Murray, an activist from the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
She discussed previous detainments during the registration process—such as hundreds of arrests in Calif. this December that sparked a protest in Los Angeles.
“We’re not sure what happens in Boston,” Murray said. “The terrible thing about the process is the secrecy with which it has been done.”
Elizabeth A. Saloom ’06, who volunteered on Friday morning before a 9 a.m. class, told the men on their way in to register that they could face a couple of hours of detainment.
But detention isn’t always a brief experience, Saloom said. Her friend’s boyfriend had been deported for 16 months when he went to the INS to register, she said.
Accounts of similar detentions and arrests at Special Registration across the country prompted students from local colleges, including Harvard, to get together earlier this month and plan how they could help those required to register, Saloom said.
The groups decided to work with local organizations such as the ADC and the ACLU to inform those preparing to register about the possible complications of the process and to ensure that they received sufficient opportunities to secure legal representation if necessary.
Their effort on Friday was the first of several such gatherings scheduled through the next two months.
A series of qualifications, including visa status and residence plans, obligates certain men over the age of 16 from 24 Middle Eastern and African nations—as well as from North Korea—to register by assigned deadlines staggered through March.
About 10 Harvard students have signed up so far to volunteer on upcoming registration dates, Saloom said.
The students next plan to distribute information at registration sessions throughout the week of Feb. 18, when they expect tremendous numbers of non-immigrants from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to turn out.
The number of men who visited the JFK building on Friday surprised Saloom—she was expecting lower numbers, she said. Standing in the shelter of the overhang, she asked men planning to register to provide a bit of information about themselves, including their health status.
Some non-immigrants who have been kept at detention facilities have said they were not given access to needed medication, she explained.
Jason Kurian, a senior at Northeastern University who was also volunteering, said that he was frustrated by what he perceived to be a blatant violation of human rights.
“I’m just disgusted with people being denied their rights. And no one seems willing to stand up against the threat,” he said. “I’m glad to be able to do what I can.”
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, a wide variety of security measures have been enacted—but many have been riddled by delays, technical glitches and human errors.
As Sept. 11 recedes into the distance, such programs have received more and more negative publicity from increasingly high-profile critics.
Two INS officers in Laguna Niguel, Calif., faced federal charges for allegedly shredding 90,000 applications for visas, citizenship documents and permits late last month.
The Justice Department also announced recently that the INS had failed to implement mandated security reforms at U.S. international airports.
Last week, many schools throughout the country experienced such difficulty in entering their foreign students’ registration data into a new, national database that the agency extended its deadline by two weeks.
And student groups and local activists are not alone in their opposition to Special Registration.
In late December, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54-'56 (D-Mass.), with two other legislators, wrote a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, urging him to suspend further implementation of the Special Registration Program.
“We have grave doubts about whether the INS’s implementation of [Special Registration] has struck the proper balance between securing our borders on the one hand and respecting the civil liberties of foreign students, businesspeople, and visitors who have come to our nation legally on the other,” they wrote.
Murray said that the ACLU appreciates Kennedy’s efforts to combat the program.
“We’re very happy that in Mass. we have someone to support us,” she said.
But on Friday, there was no end in sight to registration.
As non-immigrants in the lobby of the JFK building removed their coats, handed over their bags and dropped the contents of their pockets into small plastic bowls before stepping through a blinking metal detectors, Saloom wondered aloud whether they will all be able to make it out again that morning.
“You can’t just have people go through this as part of a war on terrorism,” Murray said.
—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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