People seeking asylum in the United States from Iraq, Iran and 32 other countries with supposed “ties to al Qaeda” will be held in government custody as part of the “new security measures” announced on March 18. The asylum measure was mentioned in a description of Operation Liberty Shield released by the Department of Homeland Security.

Typically, upon entry, asylum-seekers are interviewed and allowed to apply for refuge at the discretion of an immigration officer. This new policy, however, would mean automatic detention. Civil liberties groups harshly criticized the policy, saying it would hurt only those seeking refuge from persecution.

These immigrants often wait several months for a court to decide whether they will be granted asylum, said Aimed Aquino, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities Diocese in Fort Worth, Texas. “Before these people are granted asylum, they are without any rights in this country,” he said, noting that a long detention during this process is a human rights issue.

Civil liberties advocates said the Bush administration has tried to justify invading Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people. However, it is curtailing democratic rights in the U.S.

“It’s ironic that we say we want to bring freedom to the Iraqi people, but at the same time we are planning to imprison them,” said Wendy Young of the Women’s Commission on Refugee Women and Children in New York. “This is a blanket detainment that could last for months or even years. Before it was a case-by-case basis with initial screening and interviews. The government has cast too wide a net and in the wrong direction.”

Since 9/11 the Department of Justice has systematically hacked away at Constitutional rights and civil liberties, including the passage of the USA Patriot Act and the detention of over 1,200 people, most of whom were later deported despite a lack of ties to terrorism. Much of the government crack-down has been targeted toward immigrants, especially people from predominantly Muslim countries.

On Dec. 6, 2002, the Justice Department announced that men aged 16 to 25 from largely Muslim countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, who had arrived in the U.S. before Sept. 30, 2001, had to register with the INS. Visitors and nationals from the 25 countries have to be fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated. In Los Angeles, at the end of last year, some 1,500 Iranians and others were detained during the process for minor visa violations or for no reason at all.

James Zogby, president of the American Arab Institute, said since the “special registration” program was established in December, the community is “buzzing” with stories of men being treated as threats to national security – grilled by immigration officials, harassed by local police and hauled to local jails.

March 21 was the deadline for men over age 16 from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to register with the federal government. There has been a surge in the number of Pakistanis and Saudis requesting asylum in Canada. For many who are exempt from the process, the concept of registration is scary.

“Look at all the people detained after 9/11 and to this day [who] weren’t given the right to due process,” said Faraz Kureshi, vice president of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Central Florida, whose parents are from Pakistan. “It’s just such a sensitive time. I know students that have joked about it, but they were scared.”

Civil rights and liberties activists, coalitions and organizations have protested detentions and other measures, but many feel much more needs to be done, especially in linking this attack on democratic rights to the Bush administration’s war drive.

Jessica Marshall, a co-coordinator of the Young Communist League and active in the anti-war movement, said, “Most of the students in the peace movement talk about not only how the Bush administration is conducting this ‘war on terrorism’ first against Afghanistan and now Iraq, but also it’s conducting a war against immigrants, workers and young people – really against most of the population in our own country. We have to stop the war abroad and at home.”

Terrie Albano contributed to this article.

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