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A Safe Haven Turns Hostile

For perhaps the first time in America's history, we are witnessing the spectacle of people – most of them Muslims who fear being detained or deported – migrating from the United States in search of safety.
 
 
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February was an unusual month at Vive La Casa shelter in Buffalo, NY, and not only because its aid workers helped process three times the normal number of applications for people from the U.S. seeking asylum in Canada. It was unusual because of the applicants' composition: Of the 952 people who came to ask the non-profit for help with their paperwork and a place to stay while it was being processed, some 550 were Pakistani, about 50 were Egyptian, and the rest were a mosaic of Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Colombians and others -- all trying to leave the United States to seek safe haven in Canada.

A similar scenario unfolded at border crossings into Ontario in January, when 871 people sought Canadian asylum, double November's figure. The New York Times reported that half of them were Pakistani.

Prompting them was a Feb. 19 INS special registration deadline for nationals of seven countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Jordan and Kuwait. Under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program, men over the age of 16 from 25 countries -- all of them Muslim except for North Korea -- must report to immigration officials to show their papers and be fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. Not all men have to register; those with green cards or pending asylum applications are exempt. But those who show up with expired tourist, work or student visas are detained or told to appear in immigration court, where a judge decides whether to begin deportation proceedings. Those who don't show up, if caught later, face arrest and possible deportation.

The Pakistanis and others crowding the border in January and February weren't taking any chances of being shipped back home on chartered flights, as so many others have been. They wanted to be someplace safe, and they had determined that place was not the U.S. Since NSEERS went into effect, 3,000 Pakistanis have fled to Canada and 1,100 have been deported. According to the Karachi-based magazine The Herald, 50,000 will return voluntarily to Pakistan before it's all over.

For now, though, most of those who fled to the border are still stuck there, waiting the four to six weeks it now takes to get an appointment with a Canadian immigration official. Before the mass exodus swamped Canadian immigration offices, the waiting period was a week.

Fundamental Image Problems

The NSEERS program is not helping the United States' image in Pakistan, a country where fundamentalists made startling gains in the last election and where thrives a deep suspicion of American intentions. "The street is very radical in Pakistan," says Faiz Rehman, president and founder of the National Council for Pakistani Americans. "The popular view is Americans are out to get all the Muslims."

Pakistani newspapers follow INS developments closely. But one could not ask for a more effective marketing tool than the structure by which American money -- and American news -- get disseminated throughout Pakistan. As explained by Asad Hayauddin, spokesman for the Pakistani embassy in Washington, many Pakistanis in America are supporting six or seven family members back home.

"So the impact is multiplied," Hayauddin says. "It's not one guy going back, it's many people being affected. Domestically, this does not play well. This is going to affect the hearts and minds campaign."

Pakistan's domestic mood is already restive. President Pervez Musharraf's policy reversal following 9/11, in which he withdrew support from the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and allied himself with the U.S., angered religious conservatives, as has the presence of American special forces hunting for Taliban and al-Qaeda members. Pakistan's cooperation in that effort has helped net 450 suspects to date.

One symptom of the mounting resentment toward Islamabad's Western leanings was the October election, in which a coalition of six hard-line Islamist parties won two of the western provinces -- those closest to Afghanistan -- and became the third-biggest bloc in parliament.

Inclusion in a list of potentially dangerous states is something Musharraf's government might reasonably construe as an insult, and poor repayment for a politically risky show of loyalty. It goes without saying that the fundamentalists are incensed by the implications of the NSEERS program.

The country, in essence, feels snubbed. "They don't feel they've been repaid in the same coin, so to speak," says Rehman.

"It is argued that [the NSEERS] policy is meant to increase security for the United States," wrote Pakistani newspaper editor and visiting Brooking Institute scholar Ejaz Haider in a February op-ed piece in the Washington Post. "A worse way of doing so could hardly be imagined. The policy is an attempt to draw a Maginot line around America. Not only is it likely to fail in securing the homeland, it is creating more resentment against the United States. Does America need a policy that fails to differentiate between friend and foe?"

Haider's commentary sprang from personal experience. On Jan. 28, Haider was arrested by immigration agents outside his Brookings office in Washington and bundled off to a Virginia detention facility for having missed a check-in appointment at INS.

As it happened, Pakistani Foreign Minister Kurshid Mahmud Kasuri, a friend of Haider's, was in town that week to discuss Pakistan's inclusion in the NSEERS program. The day after Haider's unceremonious arrest, Kasuri raised the matter in a meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"Everybody was embarrassed," Kasuri told the Post. "I told him that this is the sort of thing that is going to happen [if enforcement is not more restrained]. If that is the sort of person that can be nabbed, then no one is safe."

In the end, Kasuri was assured that Pakistanis would not be deported en masse, and the Department of Justice agreed to push back the deadline for Pakistani special registration to March 21. But U.S. leniency only went so far; three weeks later Musharraf's own nephew was detained for 16 days in Memphis, Tenn. when he showed up for the special registration, apparently having missed an earlier appointment. Pressure from the embassy in Washington yielded no results.

And this is the American response to a country enjoying a moment of favor with Washington, thanks to its help in the war on terrorism.

Pakistan Pressure

Analysts generally agreed that Islamabad was off the hook during the arm-twisting festival at the United Nations two weeks ago, back when the United States was still in the game of diplomacy, albeit a hard-ball version, and trying to drum up support for war against Iraq. While the governments of Angola, Cameroon and Guinea were quailing to think of their U.S. aid cut off, while Chile was contemplating a future without a bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. and Mexico was thinking long and hard about immigration reform and having its goods ignored by its main trading partner, Pakistan was enjoying a relatively pressure-free week.

Even loud talk of Pakistan's abstaining from a vote on Iraq did not ruffle the Bush administration's feathers enough to stop it from lifting the last of military sanctions against the country. Two days later the doomed second resolution gasped its last breath and died, and Pakistan was spared making a decision.

"Most of the Muslim countries did not have a problem with this," says Rehman of the NSEERS program. "The Saudis didn't say anything, the Egyptians didn't say anything, the Yemenis didn't say anything, the Jordanians didn't say anything. They accepted this as a fait accompli. Only Pakistan has raised so much hell."

The reasons, he says, have to do with the number of people affected -- Pakistanis comprise almost 1 million of the 7 million Muslims in the United States -- combined with their leadership roles in the Islamic community and their higher education levels. Hayauddin agrees that Pakistan took the lead on the issue, mostly because the special registration is thought to affect anywhere from 14,000 to 40,000 Pakistani men. He's quick to say, however, that Pakistan understands the security concerns of the United States and seeks only a more humanitarian implementation of the new law.

That diplomatic disclaimer is undoubtedly necessary. Jordan's consul in Washington, Muhib Nimrat, says when Jordan learned it was included in the fourth group of designated countries, in January, it asked for meetings with U.S. officials -- but not to object to its inclusion in the program.

"We do understand the security concerns that prompted the American government to take such procedures," Nimrat says, "however, we voiced our concern regarding the process of registration itself. It should be easier -- they should not be detaining innocent people who comply and go to register."

Nimrat concedes that the folks at home don't like the sounds of the program. "I believe, yes, it makes it very difficult for them to come to the U.S.," he says.

"Even Jordanian students have been suffering and I believe many of them changed their route and went to Canada or England to study because it was difficult to get the visa and they were a little bit afraid once they come here that they will be subject to registration and it will be a long and difficult process. Of course, it has a negative outcome."

Jordan is one of the five countries whose deadline got pushed back to April 25. The deadline for 18 other countries, all of them Muslim except for North Korea, came and went on Feb. 7.

That long list includes some of the usual suspects, like Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Sudan (all State Department-designated terrorist states), but also some surprises: hitherto invisible Eritrea, troop-friendly Qatar, progressive Bahrain.

So far more than 50,000 males have shown up for special registration in the last four months, 22,000 of them from Pakistan. According to official U.S. sources, 5,000 of the total have been given court notices; 1,700 have been detained. Another 45,000 males entering the United States have registered at ports of entry. U.S. immigration service statistics as a whole tell the story of a closing society. Asylum cases approved in January 2003 were 43 percent lower than in January 2002. Non-criminal removals (i.e., deportations for immigration violations) are up 45 percent. And fewer people are trying for naturalization; applications are down 46 percent from last year.

"The problem with this registration program is they're using it to apprehend illegal aliens, and Congress's objective was to apprehend security risks," says Syed Nai yer Izfar, a Houston immigration attorney. "It's not a security program anymore. It's a program to round up illegal aliens.

"The fact of the matter is they're not catching any terrorists as a result of special registration. They've said, 'We've caught a lot of criminals.' If that's the point, then why don't we register the whole nation? I'm sure we'll catch a lot of criminals."

Reasons for Fear

Meanwhile, says Izfar, normally law-abiding people are avoiding special registration because they're afraid of deportation.

The very first special registration day gave the Muslim community good reason to fear the process. On Dec. 16, men from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria showed up at the INS center in Los Angeles to register. Unprepared immigration officials, faced with malfunctioning computers, detained 1,100 men rather than risk having them not return after the computers were fixed. The detention facilities were miserable -- cold, crowded and unable to feed anyone. Eventually all but six of the detainees were released, their papers found to be in order.

"And these were the people who showed up!" says Rehman.

The National Council for Pakistani Americans was one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against the Department of Justice on Dec. 27 over the fiasco. The suit received national and international press, and although it was thrown out by a California judge in January, the group decided not to appeal.

"It served our purpose," says Rehman. "It raised the profile of the issue."

But there will be more special registration deadlines. The immigration service's website promises that another group of countries has been identified, though the information is not yet public.

"They told us the list would expand, not shrink," says Hayauddin. "That's what Ashcroft told us."

With the second and final date for special registration having come and gone, the Pakistanis camped on the Canadian border in shelters, motels and host houses are in what is known in Ashcroft country as a pickle. While they wait for their interviews in Canada, they are also, many of them, officially now categorized as absconders for not having undergone the special registration they are trying to avoid. A last-ditch effort to push the deadline back until June failed, so they are in the worst kind of vulnerable position.

When Rehman visited Vive La Casa recently, he says, people were terrified and depressed.

"I met one guy who left New York City for Buffalo and paid $900 for a taxi cab because he didn't want to ride a bus or train or take a plane because he thought he would be spotted as a Pakistani and detained," says Rehman. "I met a family with two kids, one 10 months old, who left their apartment with everything in it, just like this -- handed over the key. Left everything."

Another well-off family with two teenaged daughters, one of them in college, had left a nice house in Manhattan and was staying in the shelter.

Liz Woike, assistant manager at Vive La Casa, says going back home is not an option for many of them. "Lots of people don't want to go back to Pakistan -- they're from opposition parties or from persecuted social groups. We have women fleeing gender persecution," she says.

Normally the solution would be to apply for asylum in a country that offers greater social and political freedoms -- a country like the United States. But no longer.

"We have people who feel they're not going to get a fair hearing for their case for persecution in the U.S., so they're going to Canada," says Woike. And while Woike says U.S. immigration authorities generally turn a blind eye to groups of people trying to leave the country, the fact remains that what was once a safe haven has turned hostile.

To make matters worse, the U.S. and Canada signed a "safe third country" agreement in December declaring each other to be so safe for refugees that people living on one side of the U.S.-Canadian border have no need to seek asylum on the other side -- and soon won't be allowed to.

But the evidence would suggest that the people who need refuge the most think otherwise.

As Haider wrote in the Post, "Perhaps for the first time in American history, we are witnessing the spectacle of families migrating from the United States in search of safety. Mere rhetoric about Islam's being a great religion or the fact that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam or even that registration is not about racial and religious profiling will not do. People out there are neither stupid nor intellectually challenged. It does not serve any purpose for the United States to test their intelligence."

Traci Hukill is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.