At 8 a.m. on Jan. 31, Malek Zeidan woke to the sound of a Justice Department officer pounding on his front door. There to inquire about a former roommate, the officer eventually turned her questioning toward Zeidan himself — specifically, his immigration status. The 42-year-old immediately admitted that 14 years ago he came to America on a six-month tourist visa and never left, building a life and a successful business raising canaries.
Cases like Zeidan’s normally would never end in arrest. But these are not normal times. The Justice Department officer asked Zeidan to come to federal office building in Newark the next day, February 1, to provide more information about his former roommate, another illegal immigrant from Syria. He did as the officer asked, and thus began a 40-day stay in the Hudson Country Correctional Center.
While in jail, Zeidan lost his canary breeding business, ran up more than $20,000 in legal expenses and may still face a deportation order despite the fact that no charges of involvement in anything beyond the visa violation have been lodged.
“When she arrested me, the officer said normally we don’t arrest people like you,” said Zeidan, a short, gray-haired man who eschews political or religious organizations. “Still, I don’t believe that this happened to me in the U.S.”
Sweeping the streets
Zeidan’s story is not unique. Across the nation, the Sept. 11 sparked detentions of scores of Arab and Muslim immigrants on technical violations of visa regulations. These immigrants, many of whom do not speak English and have little family in the country, are left in jail for months on end, some without legal representation or even the knowledge that they can demand it.
These detentions go against INS procedure prior to Sept. 11 when immigrants with outdated visas were, for the most part, ignored. The agency still has no set standards for dealing with visa overstays, but does have a right to detain a person they believe to be in the U.S. illegally.
The fact that these Arab immigrants were subjected to arrest when others were not has caused little stir among the general public. A poll taken not long after the attacks in New Jersey, where many Arab-Americans live, showed that 65 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks supported strong measures against people of Arab decent.
“After the attacks, Americans indicated that they were willing to trade civil liberties for greater security,” said Carol Swain, a political science and law professor at Vanderbilt University.
“Generally, the INS doesn’t lock up people who are going through immigration proceedings,” said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University who specializes in criminal procedures and constitutional law. “They only arrest you if they can show that that person is a flight risk or a danger to the community.”
There has been little outcry from the American public against the arrest and detention of specific ethnic groups who are caught by the Justice Department and the INS with visa iregularities.
If the INS does charge someone with illegally overstaying a visa, he would be served with papers and then released until an immigration hearing, according to Ann Pillsbury, an immigration lawyer in New York. At such a hearing, the immigrant could either apply for asylum or choose to leave the country.
Historically attitudes toward immigrants have changed with the events of the day, according to Alan Wernick a lawyer and author of “Immigration and Citizenship.”
“Usually mass detentions happen during political or economic crisis,” said Wernick, who also teaches law at Hostos Community College in New York City. In 1979 the Iranian hostage crisis promoted the government to crack down on Middle Eastern students with visa irregularities, and in 1919 after a politically-motivated explosion at the home of the attorney general the government rounded up and deported hundreds of immigrants tied to anarchist or communist organizations.
Wernick predicts that the current crackdown will soon end. “If don’t treat immigrants right then they won’t come here, and that is not good for the country,” he said. “We need their labor and their expertise.”
Since Sept. 11, the local media in Paterson, as well as the national outlets, have reported on dozens of cases in which immigrants on overstayed visas were put in jail. One report on National Public Radio described the separation of a Syrian family who had been in America for more than 12 years. Three of their four children, all American-born, were placed in detention with their parents and another was placed in a government children’s center.
Civil rights organizations accuse the Justice Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service of targeting Arabs, Muslims and South Asian immigrants and the INS does not deny directing its investigations toward specific groups.
“In any ongoing criminal investigation, such as this one, the investigation follows the direction indicated by where the evidence leads us,” said Karen Kraushaar, a spokesperson for the INS, in response to why there are many more Arabs and Muslims in custody than any other nationality.
The majority of immigrants taken into custody since Sept. 11, were arrested not on criminal charges but for visa overstay violations.
Exact numbers of detainees since Sept. 11 are nearly impossible to come by. Figures released by the INS show that 537 individuals were detained between Sept. 11 and Nov. 27. Of those, only 5 percent were from countries outside of the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa.
But legal aid organizations estimate that thousands have been detained since Sept. 11.
“After Sept. 11, the government detained over 1000 Arabs and Muslims in New Jersey alone,” said Magdy Mahmoud, president of the Human Rights Education and Law Project, an organization that provides legal protection to Muslim detainees. Mahmoud estimates that 85 percent of those detained have now been deported.
Lengthy stay in jail
According to Zeidan, the prosecutor at his initial court hearing some 21 days after his arrest refused to grant the possibility of bail, claiming that he may have had a connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Thirty-five days after his arrest, on March 7, Zeidan was cleared for release by the FBI, and was released from prison five days later.
Zeidan, now free on bail and awaiting word on his possible deportation, still receives phone calls from men he met in prison — men in similar situations who have been held for over six months.
He has no illusions about the reasons for his arrest. “Because I am Arabic and I am Muslim. Why else would they arrest a man with no criminal record?” he said.
Like Zeidan, Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had no criminal record and originally entered the country on a 6-month tourist visa.
Of the hundreds of people detained, only one has been charged in connection to Sept. 11 — Zacharias Mousaoui, who was in custody before the attacks occurred.
Pending legal cases
In New Jersey, where many of the detainees are held, the jails have refused to release the names of inmates at the request of the INS, making it more difficult for legal aid organizations to offer legal services and inform the inmates of their rights.
Unaware of their rights, and without an understanding of the American legal system, many of the immigrants end up staying in prison longer than necessary.
Frustrated with the lack of response to repeated calls for openness, the New Jersey branch of the ACLU has brought a lawsuit against the government that is still pending in court.
Another point of contention with civil rights groups is the treatment of the detainees once in custody. The Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a lawsuit alleging that some of the Sept. 11 detainees were held despite having received and accepted deportation orders, were subjected to severe conditions during their detainment, including beatings, verbal abuse, solitary confinement, and were denied the right to religious practice.
Mahmoud describes conditions as “humiliating” for people detained only on immigration violations. Zeidan said he was awakened each morning at 3:30 a.m. and fed food “a dog would refuse to eat.”
‘Tool of a witch hunt'
But in the Arab community, the widespread support for the war on terror and increased home front security is put in check by concerns that all Arabs will be cast under suspicion, according to Kenneth Ayouby, a professor at the University of Michigan Dearborn. “People are afraid of the law being misused to become a tool of a witch-hunt,” he said.
Eight months after the terrorist attacks and subsequent security crackdowns began, civil rights and legal groups think the worst of the INS sweeps may be over. But legal experts predict that the INS will soon start less targeted immigration violation crackdowns.
“Over time, contours of the law that governs will be worked out,” said Cole. “In the meantime, many innocent people have unnecessarily spent months in jail.”