Watching the Watchdogs
"Any and all things you think might be human rights violations, record on this sheet." The instructions came from Muslim Public Affairs Council(MPAC) organizers at the Federal Building downtown on Friday. They were giving volunteers stacks of questionnaires and their uniforms for the day: bright yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Human Rights Monitor."
Blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers haven't been called into American cities just yet, but there was enough outrage last month over the first phase of John Ashcroft's Orwellian-titled "special registration" program -- which many activists characterize as a roundup of Muslim men -- that a grassroots version of a peacekeeping force sprang up to watch the second phase of the process last week. Volunteers from churches, synagogues, anti-war groups and Islamic organizations all over Southern California stood by Friday to witness non-resident males from 12 Muslim countries and North Korea report to immigration authorities.
The monitors' presence was as much symbolic as practical, an attempt to focus attention on the program, which during its last go-round gave them serious reasons for concern: Hundreds of men and boys over 16 from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and the Sudan arrived voluntarily to be registered last month, only to be arrested and shipped off to detention centers in San Pedro and Lancaster. Many of the arrested were in the United States legally, awaiting final decisions on their green card applications. The INS refused to release information on how many men they had detained, and will not say how many are still in detention.
"We haven't been getting any information," MPAC organizer Susan Attar said Friday as protesters milled about on the sidewalk and an impromptu prayer circle formed a few yards away. "They will only tell us that they can't tell us."
On this Friday, information was just as difficult to obtain. Part of the monitors' purpose was to track people as they came in to register, and determine how many came back out. When she arrived at 6 in the morning, Attar says, about 200 people were lined up outside the Federal Building. About half of those, she estimated, were coming in for their registration interviews. But Attar and the other monitors were unable to produce an exact tally because building security guards and INS officers refused to let them approach the waiting registrants. "They wouldn't let us talk to them," Attar says. "They told us to move to the sidewalk." A few phone calls to higher-ups convinced officials to relent but by the time that happened all 200 had entered the building.
Francisco Arcaute, the local INS spokesman, declined to say how many had registered locally by the end of the day on Friday, or how many had been detained. He deferred the issue to a Justice Department official in Washington, who did not return repeated phone calls. Those wanting more information were left to rely on news reports that boiled the issue down to the simple fact that this month's registration process went smoother than December's public relations debacle.
Smooth might not be the word Muslim immigrants would choose as they waited for INS bureaucrats to determine their fates. Conscious of the bad impression left last month -- even the major dailies considered it poor etiquette to invite people over and then refuse to let them leave -- the INS did bring in additional personnel to handle this month's registration. They even stocked extra computers. And this time around, though the INS had buses ready at a loading dock behind the Federal Building -- and, according to MPAC's Salam Al-Marayati, "There were people who went in and never came out" -- only those who were entirely out of status seemed to be arrested, not those with applications pending. What's more, some of those arrested were bailing out within hours, rather than spending days in Lancaster.
Even so, much of the relative calm might be attributed to the fact that none of the countries listed in the most recent registration order -- Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen -- boast immigrant populations comparable in size to the local Iranian-American community forced to register in December. By all accounts, fewer people registered this month, which meant that far fewer could be detained. Attar is convinced that the effects of last month's heavy-handed approach by the Justice Department also contributed to the low turnout -- after the initial morning lineup few others showed up as the day progressed -- and will result in many people being labeled criminals for the simple act of failing to register.
"People are not coming for three reasons," she said. "One, they don't know about it. The Department of Justice needs to do its job in terms of publishing this. Two, they don't think it pertains to them. And three, they're scared."
In the end, Attar and her fellow volunteers had nary a human right to monitor and the immigration service got to present a proud spectacle of smoothness.