Bustling storefronts here cater almost exclusively to customers from the sub-continent: sari shops, Indo-Pak groceries, Bollywood movie rentals, and chaat houses dominate the scene. Urdu and Hindi are spoken here more than English. Most of the women still dress in the Eastern tradition, and scents of cardamom, curry and deep-fried samosas fill the air.
But the mood has become subdued as the February 21 deadline approaches for Pakistani males age 16 and older to register with the INS downtown. Hundreds of Iranians were arrested in Los Angeles last December when they showed up to register under the new program. And now Pakistani nationals in Chicago—particularly those whose immigration status is illegal, unclear or pending review—fear they will share the same fate.
On January 13, registration interviews began for “group 3”—immigrants from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (groups 1 and 2 included most of the other Arab nations, along with Afghanistan and North Korea). By then, 80 to 90 local Pakistani men had already fled to Canada, some accompanied by their families. Two hundred immigrants had marched along Devon, protesting the new policy. And community leaders had begun holding meetings throughout Chicagoland to try to mitigate the effects of detentions they believe are imminent.
Raja Yakoob of the Pakistani-American National Alliance (PANA) was raised in Pakistan and educated as a chemical engineer; he has been a U.S. resident for 13 years and owns several gas stations in the Chicago area. Yakoob estimates the Pakistani community in Chicago at close to 100,000. As many as 10,000 of those, he says, do not have valid visas.
“Our goal is to organize the people around this issue,” he says. “If someone is detained, we want to help their families, give him legal help if he needs an attorney. If he is deported, to give him a ticket for that. And we can ask the congressmen and senators that they should repeal this law, and the people should have a normal life again.”
Congress called for a system to more closely track foreign nationals visiting the United States in 1996, but the legislation was never implemented. When it was discovered that some of the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks had overstayed their visas, the INS came under harsh criticism. In August 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the Department of Justice would begin the federal registration program.
Sadruddin Noorani is a successful Pakistani businessman and interpreter in Skokie, a suburb just 10 minutes from Devon Avenue. He does not disagree with the exit-entry registration law, but says he is unhappy with the way it’s being carried out. “I do not oppose the law because it involves the safety and security of the country,” he says. “When American people go out of the country, in most Asian and European countries, they have to register. … But my opposition is that people will be going to register themselves, and they will be arrested. That’s not something I have been able to digest.”
The INS defends its policy. Spokesman Bill Strassberger says: “There’s no way of getting around it, if they are out-of-status. The laws are on the books, and we have to enforce them.”
At community meetings in Chicago, local INS representatives field repeated queries from residents wanting to know if they or their loved ones will be detained. The officials refuse to answer directly, saying only that each interview is “handled on a case-by-case basis” and that detention “is a possibility.”
Noorani says the registration policy is disrupting the lives of ordinary, respectable people, and points out that the interviewees have all entered the United States legally. “They came as a visitor maybe, or for the opportunity to work, and since then, they are paying taxes, they are raising their children, they’re good contributors to this country’s economy. Their only crime is they overstayed, and they don’t have status.”
Noorani says Pakistan’s role in the war on terrorism and its historic alignment with the United States throughout the Cold War ought to count for something. He’s not alone. Pakistan’s foreign minister traveled to Washington recently, where he protested the inclusion of Pakistani immigrants in the exit-entry dragnet. Other Pakistani officials have also expressed their discontent.
“They allowed the United States to use their land when they were attacking the Taliban, and to chase al-Qaeda, and now they feel betrayed,” says Taher Kameli, an immigration lawyer who recently set up a satellite office on Devon Avenue to assist those being interviewed. “I don’t believe the Pakistani government expected this kind of treatment.”
Kameli charges that the INS is keeping Muslim individuals in detention by setting unreasonably high bail. One of his clients, Kameli says, “has a U.S. citizen wife, has U.S. citizen children. He works here. His application is pending at [the INS].”
Bail for the client was set at $15,000, and Kameli is outraged. “Nobody has $15,000 to float around,” he says. “The reason for bond is to make sure the individual is going to come back to court, to go through the proceedings—but wait a minute! The individual came to turn himself in to the INS voluntarily!”
Kameli says it’s not unreasonable for the United States to implement a system to protect its borders, but he believes the INS is going about this all wrong.
“If the INS is after terrorists, it would be very odd that anyone’s going to be caught by this system,” he says incredulously. “Just imagine: If a person wants to hurt the country, they are not going to come into the INS and say, ‘Hey INS, I’m here. Let me register and sign, and let you fingerprint me and take my picture, and whenever you want I’ll be at your service—send me an e-mail once in a while, too.’ It just blows my mind.”
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