Los Angeles is home to one of the largest, most well-established Iranian communities in the U.S. So in December, protest spread like wildfire when the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested at least 700 Iranian boys and men — or one quarter of those who had gone to the INS to comply with new registration rules being applied to men from Muslim countries.
Within a day, news of the arrests spread via Farsi-language media. Traffic on the city’s freeways snarled as thousands of Iranians headed for a protest at the federal building in Westwood, complete with picket signs asking “What next? Concentration camps?”
The demonstration made the international news and embarrassed INS officials into eventually releasing most of the Iranians. Some of the people released, however, still face charges.
The Los Angeles experience confirms the worst fears of Middle Eastern and Arab communities about the government’s racist and insidious new registration policy. It also shows that public outcry can back off immigration officials!
But to reverse these attacks on civil liberties and prevent a rerun of U.S. history, with its internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, more is needed. Immigrants and their allies who are already protesting must be joined by the power and force of the labor and antiwar movements.
Vicious catch-22. Iranians, along with men from Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria, were among the first to face deadlines under the Justice Department’s National Security Entry-Exit Registration program.
The system, which dates to 1996 and theoretically applies to all foreigners with temporary visas, has been put into effect only for men from 25 countries, all but one of the nations Arab or Muslim. Under the program males who are age 16 and older are registered, photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed.
In the past, doing paperwork for visa extensions has been as routine and normal for most Iranians as renewing a driver’s license. The big hurdle is in the beginning, when extensive information is required to apply for a green card.
So on December 17, when Iranians went to the INS they expected a straightforward process. Instead, hundreds were imprisoned and strip-searched. Some were shackled and hosed with cold water. Others were transferred to new locations in the night.
The majority of detainees had no criminal history and were arrested on minor visa “violations” that were actually the result of INS incompetence. For example, the agency dumped 200,000 change-of-address forms in a storage facility near Kansas City, putting thousands of visa-holders at risk for deportation simply because their paperwork was never processed.
News of the mass roundups in Los Angeles, and arrests on a smaller scale in other areas, has fueled anxiety among other immigrant populations who must register. The dilemma they face is whether to comply and face possible arrest, or avoid registration and face certain deportation if they are tracked down by the INS.
In Northeastern states, this catch-22 caused hundreds of Pakistanis to rush for Canada. Police at the border turned the heads of households over to INS police, leaving entire families stranded.
Several Arab American groups believe that the catch-22 is deliberate, that the government is deliberately trying to frighten people into not registering — thus allowing them to be deported under the U.S. Patriot Act, even if there are no other grounds.
For mutual defense of civil liberties and civil rights! In Los Angeles, lawyers with the National Lawyers Guild and American Civil Liberties Union are working double-time to provide legal help for men who must register. The legal field is a key area of defense, but it will take loud, escalating public pressure to scrap the registration program.
The first rally of 10,000 protesters, almost entirely Iranians, won the release of hundreds of detainees.
Since then, Arab American community groups have taken the lead in organizing protests to oppose the detentions and deportations. Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women activists have added their voices at these demonstrations, with picket signs demanding that the INS be dismantled and that detainees get compensation for lost wages and jobs and the suffering they experienced.
At one of these rallies, Service Employees International Union boosted everyone’s morale when it turned out in force. The many Latino members of SEIU are no strangers to being targets of the INS, and the union’s show of solidarity for Middle Eastern immigrants is a model for other labor organizations to emulate.
Speakers at marches to oppose the war in Iraq are also addressing the arrests. The next step for antiwar and labor activists is to make opposition to immigrant roundups a central demand of both movements.
It isn’t just immigrants who have a stake in ending the registration program and detentions. As George W. warned, you are either with him, or against him. His list of enemies is growing daily, and union and peace activists can be sure that if they are not already on it, they will be soon. Unless, that is, massive, vigorous protest is heard now.
Cancel the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System! Stop the deportations! Free the detainees and provide just compensation! Repeal the USA Patriot Act! Dismantle the INS!