Anger Over INS Arrests

Times Staff Writer

In peaceful Irvine, where Iranians who fled the Ayatollah Khomeini established a tight-knit community of professionals and young families, the last thing anyone expected was to be tossed in jail.

On Tuesday -- the day after dozens of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries and Sudan were taken into custody during a government registration process -- residents like Ahmad Mesbah were filled with sadness and anger.

“We suffered a lot, and that is why we are here. We love the United States, so this has been frustrating,” said Mesbah, who helps lead monthly networking meetings for Iranian professionals. “There’s also something ironic about it. This affects the cream of the crop who came here. We are scientists, doctors, engineers.”


The registration, mandated for people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria who are in the United States on temporary visas, led to the detention on immigration violation charges of as many as several hundred, some who had nearly completed the process for legal residency, friends and relatives said.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to say how many people had been apprehended in California or around the country in connection with the registration process. Santa Ana police said as many as 40 people detained at the INS center there were booked into the city jail Monday. Police in Los Angeles could not provide an arrest figure.

But in Westwood, Irvine and other communities with large numbers of Iranian immigrants, and on Persian-language local media, accounts of detentions were widespread. Local attorneys and callers to radio stations offered accounts of relatives’, some of whom had not been to their native countries since childhood, being jailed and placed at risk of being deported.

As some scrambled to bail out jailed relatives, others sought ways to pressure the government to change course. A lawsuit seeking an injunction to halt the registration was filed in Santa Ana.

Persian-language radio stations buzzed with commentary. And an Iranian attorney conducted a vigil outside the INS office in Los Angeles.

“I have seen with my own eyes at least 450 people being detained just yesterday [at the INS office in Los Angeles]. They handcuffed them and walked them away,” said attorney Soheila Jonoubi.

“These people came in voluntarily. They wanted to comply with the law. This is the worst violation of human rights.”

Most of those detained posted bail, but now face deportation hearings.

Under the registration program, men who are required to register are photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed. Citizens of 13 other countries -- North Korea and 12 Middle Eastern and North African nations -- will be required to register by Jan. 10. Men from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan who are in the United States on temporary visas are required to register in February.

The INS said about 7,500 immigrants nationwide would be affected, but Islamic groups said the number could be far higher.

The post-Sept. 11 procedure is designed to help the INS improve its accountability of immigrants who lack green cards.

Some immigrants, however, said the registration will not lead to catching terrorists.

“If they were terrorists, they would not show up to the INS for the registration,” said Babak Sotoodeh, a Santa Ana attorney who emigrated from Iran.

“We ran away from the Ayatollah and the [radical] Islam. We are very patriotic in the United States,” Sotoodeh said. “Why are we being targeted? It’s a total irony.”

Hossein Hedjazi, program manager at Persian-language radio station KIRN-AM (670), said Irvine, Westwood and several other Southern California communities draw Iranian professionals looking for good schools and quiet suburbs.

Irvine is home to an annual Persian festival and a Persian New Year’s party in April, both of which draw 20,000 to 30,000 people.

More than 350 Iranians in Irvine participated in an event last year that raised $75,000 for Sept. 11 victims. A radio-thon on KIRN raised an additional $100,000.

“We see ourselves as Americans. When something happens to America, it happens to us,” said Mariam Khosravai, an organizer of the fund-raiser who came to Irvine from Iran in 1985. “We will do anything to cooperate with the American government. That is why this hurts so much.”

Reza Tabib was indignant that his friend Efran Haj Rasoli -- a 19-year-old Irvine Valley College student -- was taken into custody Monday because he lacked a residency card. Tabib said the INS wrote Rasoli a letter indicating it had been approved in 2000 but that because of INS backlogs, it had not arrived.

“They are looking for terrorists. These people who are turning themselves in are not terrorists,” Tabib said. “This boy is going to college. He is not a threat to society.”