Hundreds of Middle Eastern and North African men, some just 16, have been hauled into custody across southern California in the past few days, enraging civil liberties groups and drawing comparisons with the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.
The round-ups in Los Angeles, San Diego and suburban Orange County were part of a counter-terrorism initiative by the Bush administration, requiring men and teenagers from specific countries to register with the immigration authorities and have their fingerprints taken. Several thousand citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Sudan â€“ many of them accompanied by lawyers â€“ willingly came forward across southern California to meet Monday’s deadline.
However, as many as a quarter of them â€“ estimates vary between 500 and 1,000 people â€“ were arrested on the basis of apparently minor visa violations and herded into jail cells under threat of deportation.
Lawyers reported that some detainees were forced to stand up all night for lack of room, that some were placed in shackles, and others were hosed down with cold water before being thrown into unheated cells. They said the numbers were so high that authorities were talking about transferring several hundred detainees to Arizona to await immigration hearings and deportation orders.
Both the lawyers and the southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union denounced the round-up as an outrage that did not advance the fight against terrorism one inch and very possibly hindered it. At a public demonstration in Los Angeles on Wednesday, at least 3,000 protesters waved signs saying “What next? Concentration camps?” and “Detain terrorists, not innocent immigrants”.
“All of our fundamental civil rights have been violated by these actions,” one lawyer, Ban al-Wardi, told the Los Angeles Times after 14 of her 20 clients were arrested during the registration process. “I don’t know how far this is going to go before people start speaking up. This is a very dangerous precedent we are setting. What’s to stop Americans from being treated like this when they travel overseas?”
In one case, a 16-year-old boy was ripped from his mother’s arms and told he would never return home. The mother is a legal resident married to an American citizen. Many of the detainees came from Los Angeles’ large Iranian Jewish population and are highly unlikely to have any link to militant Islamic guerrilla groups.
Immigration officials said they would not discuss numbers but did not dispute one report putting the number of detainees at between 500 and 700. They acknowledged anyone with a slight visa irregularity was subject to arrest, regardless of personal histories. The detainees’ lawyers challenged the government to produce any evidence of criminal behaviour among their clients, let alone a link to international terrorist groups.
The registration scheme was conceived by President Bush’s ultra-conservative Attorney General, John Ashcroft, and had already come under criticism for what opponents call blatant discrimination.