Federal authorities in Los Angeles and across the nation are vowing to be better prepared today as a second group of foreign men -- mostly from the Middle East -- face a deadline to register with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"I think that it will go much, much smoother than the last time around," said Ronald J. Smith, acting INS district director in Los Angeles. "I feel confident that we're ready."
The INS in Los Angeles has bolstered staff and equipment and is working with improved and more uniform instructions from headquarters in Washington, Smith said.
The ill-fated first phase of the program, in December, degenerated into a public relations debacle for the agency as scores of long-settled Iranians whose families fled the Islamic revolution were taken into custody in Los Angeles.
This time, "there will be a significant contrast with the first round," said Smith, an INS veteran who took over the Los Angeles post last month.
He promised greater flexibility in handling cases of registrants who are in the process of seeking permanent resident status, signified by "green cards."
The INS may be helped by the different nationalities affected by each deadline. Iranians, who have a large immigrant population in Southern California, were among those required to register in December. Although people from 13 countries are required to register by today, none of them has such a large, concentrated population in the region.
Officials from the INS and Justice Department, of which the immigration agency is a part, have said the INS was ill-prepared for an eleventh-hour rush of Iranians who were among the nationals of five nations required to register by Dec. 16. Several hundred foreigners were detained in Los Angeles as the INS struggled to complete mandated fingerprinting, photographing, interrogations and background checks on each registrant.
Smith cited several steps that he hopes will improve the INS response this time:
* More equipment. The district headquarters in downtown L.A. now has 18 computer terminals to assist with registration, compared with three last month. The INS also has seven terminals used for electronic fingerprinting and photographing of registrants, compared with three last time.
* More personnel. Though declining to be specific, Smith said the agency was assigning 35% to 50% more workers to the registration task downtown, totaling more than 200 staffers. And, he said, the INS was ready to draw more from satellite offices if necessary.
* Improved guidelines from Washington on criminal background checks and other sensitive issues. Last month, the INS in Los Angeles generally declined to let any registrants leave before completing full criminal background checks against various databases. This time, Smith said, all the checks will eventually be run, but if registrants initially seem clean, full background exams will be completed after their departure.
Though promising more flexibility this time, authorities have pointedly not instituted a no-arrest policy. "Everything is on a case-by-case basis," said an INS official in Washington.
Foreigners who show up for registration and are found to have criminal or terrorist records will certainly be detained, officials said, and could face expulsion or prosecution.
Of the more than 20 foreign registrants still in custody in Los Angeles, Smith said, at least three have criminal records -- including a twice-convicted child molester. But officials said no suspected terrorists had been among those apprehended.
By contrast, the INS seems less likely to detain people who are simply "visa overstayers" awaiting permanent residency status. In recent years the agency's policy has been to not focus its limited resources on visa violators who are on the road to legal residence -- a policy that, officials say, seems likely to be followed with this registration procedure.
"Where discretion has been used in a particular type of case in the past, I think you will see discretion used in this phase," said Smith.
The new registration mandate is among the most sweeping security measures imposed by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The complex and much-misinterpreted requirement has led to confusion among Middle Easterners and other immigrants nationwide, advocates say.
"There's a lot of fear and anxiety in the community," said Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "People are scared it's starting out with these groups, and almost everyone will end up in internment camps."
The INS registration requirement covers males 16 and older from 20 targeted countries who came to the United States as tourists, students, businessmen or on other temporary visas. Of the 20 countries, 19 are heavily Muslim nations of the Middle East or North Africa; the 20th is North Korea. All 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Arab men who entered the United States legally on short-term visas.
The men required to register by today are citizens or nationals of North Korea, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Exempt from the registration obligation to date are all women, naturalized U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents (holders of green cards), foreign diplomats and people who have received political asylum.
A related initiative was put into effect in September at international airports and other ports of entry, where the INS is now registering men associated with many nations linked to terrorism. But the "call-in" registration -- for certain foreign men already in the United States -- has been much more contentious.
U.S. authorities call the new requirement a crucial component of improved national security. Opponents call it discriminatory and counterproductive.
On Thursday, a U.S. district judge in Santa Ana declined to issue an order blocking implementation of the registration in response to a lawsuit calling the program discriminatory.
Illustrating the confusion surrounding the mandate is the fact that an Arabic-language notice on the official INS Web site incorrectly stated that call-in registration applied only to men who arrived in the United States after September 2002. In fact, the opposite is true -- the requirement applies only to those who arrived before September. Those who have arrived since September were covered by the new airport registration requirement. The INS was alerted to the error Thursday and acted to correct it, a spokesman said.
Immigrant advocates and others say word of last month's arrests may have a dampening effect on turnout, as foreign residents fear that they may be detained or deported.
On the other hand, those who fail to appear are taking a major risk: They are subject to deportation and possible criminal prosecution.
"We're recommending that everybody who is subject to this contact an attorney," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based advocacy group. "We always recommend that people abide by the law, but they should have somebody to defend their rights."
Foreign nationals planning to register with the INS are urged to take copies of any relevant immigration applications with them. On Monday, a five-week registration period opens for men from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who arrived in the United States before September 2002.
Times staff writer Jennifer Mena contributed to this report.