Despite fears of a new round of mass arrests, the second phase of a registration program for foreign men from mostly Muslim nations ended Friday without reports of large-scale detentions or other problems in Los Angeles and elsewhere, according to officials and advocates.
"It appears that so far it's a lot smoother," said Kareem Shora, legal advisor with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, which was monitoring reports nationwide.
The relatively uneventful process Friday was in sharp contrast to the first phase of the Immigration and Naturalization registration program, which ended on Dec. 16.
More than 500 Iranians and other foreign men -- mostly in Southern California -- were arrested in that round, said Jorge Martinez, a Justice Department spokesman. Most have since been released pending deportation hearings in immigration court.
Martinez applauded "a very successful registration period" nationwide this time around.
"There were no known glitches anywhere," he said.
Preliminary numbers indicated that more than 124 foreigners with suspected visa violations were arrested across the country during the second registration period, Martinez said. Most are to be placed in deportation proceedings, where they can argue their right to remain before immigration judges. A few may have criminal charges pending, the spokesman said.
The INS office in Los Angeles bolstered staff and equipment in anticipation of a "worst-case scenario," said Ronald J. Smith, the acting agency district director in Los Angeles. Federal authorities also had more specific instructions allowing officers to use discretion to release visa violators who were on the path to gaining legal U.S. residency through relatives or employers.
Also aiding the effort this time was the fact that none of the 13 nations whose nationals faced Friday's deadline is a major source of immigrants here -- certainly not compared to the huge Iranian population. INS officials could not say how many people were registered in Los Angeles on Friday, but the turnout was clearly far below that on the final day of phase one.
Volunteers in fluorescent yellow T-shirts identifying them as human rights monitors were on hand outside INS offices. Their task was to assist registrants and observe any potential mistreatment.
"We're here to make sure that what happened on Dec. 16 doesn't happen again -- or, if it does happen, that there are witnesses," said Randy Rice, a 50-year-old writer and father of two from Pasadena who was one of the monitors in Los Angeles.
The presence of the monitors and the huge media contingent outside the INS offices in downtown Los Angeles heartened some arriving registrants, such as Mohamed Bouzaidi, 29, a Tunisian citizen who acknowledged he was worried about what he might face. The reports of mass detentions have spread fear and uncertainly through the nation's Middle Eastern communities, already battered by the post-Sept. 11 backlash.
"I felt better when I saw there was people outside to help us and the press was watching," said Bouzaidi, a Koreatown resident who is planning to become a U.S. citizen.
He and other registrants generally faced about a half-hour with INS officers, who took the men's fingerprints and photographs and asked a series of questions. Registrants were asked their places of birth, their parents' names, their occupations, addresses and assorted other biographical details. The information is destined for federal law enforcement databases.
"As long as we were treated fairly, I didn't mind it," Bouzaidi said afterward, expressing the equanimity voiced by several other registrants. "It seemed to be done on a fair basis."
Outside, activists from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups likened the registration plan to the internment of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York activist in Los Angeles for other engagements, stopped by and denounced the program as "un-American."
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft launched the registration program last year in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, arguing that the nation must improve its tracking system of foreign visitors. All 19 suicide hijackers were Arab men who entered the country on temporary visas.
The registration sign-up at INS offices in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities involves men 16 and older from 20 mostly Muslim countries who arrived as tourists, businessmen and in other temporary statuses. The program, focusing on nations regarded as potentially high-risk for terrorism, is only for those affected men who arrived in the United States by September 2002. Exempt are women, naturalized U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents (green card holders), diplomats and political asylum recipients.
Anyone who is required to register and fails to do so faces deportation and possible criminal charges. Immigrant advocate groups are calling on the Justice Department to extend application periods because of widespread confusion and lack of notice about the new program.
To date, more than 15,000 foreign men have registered at INS offices during the first two phases of the program, said Martinez, the Justice Department spokesman. That is almost 50% more than officials had anticipated, he said.
A related program in place at international airports and other ports of entry has resulted in the registration of more than 35,000 foreign men associated with nations linked to terrorism, the spokesman said.
Two Lebanese men from Orange County were among those detained Friday at the INS office in Santa Ana. Their attorney, Malek Shibley, said he hoped bail could be posted and the pair could be out by the weekend.
Both are married to U.S. citizens and will eventually be eligible for legal U.S. status but only submitted their applications recently, the attorney said, so the INS chose to hold them. Shibley said he represented many foreign nationals who had decided not to come forward for the special registration, despite the risks of being caught and deported.
"They would rather leave than be subjected to jail here," Shibley said. "I can understand. People who walk in and say, 'Here I am,' should not be detained."