Three Harvard students joined a small cadre of volunteers cuddling clipboards and sharing tips and warnings with male non-immigrants as they entered the building for “Special Registration” with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
The new registration program is just one of a wide variety of new federal requirements established in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to track non-immigrants who fit the government’s profile of possible terrorists.
“The United States will always welcome visitors from foreign countries, but after the tragic events of September 11th, it is clear that we have to understand better who is entering and exiting our country,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said this fall when he announced the program.
But on Friday, the view of registration was much more stark.
Standing under a gray granite overhang as snow accumulated in the Government Center plaza, two students carried poster boards reading, “We are here to defend immigrant rights. Talk to us before you register with the INS,” in large print.
On the last day of registration for nationals of 18 countries—such as Somalia, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates—a broad cross-section of the population stood in line to be counted by the INS.
The volunteers warned non-immigrants that others have been detained and even deported during the photographing, fingerprinting and interview session that the INS now requires to maintain legal status.
In some instances, the volunteers said, men coming to register have been arrested for lacking documents that they had not yet received due to INS backlog.
At the JFK Building, a man in pressed trousers and a leather jacket stopped before the volunteers. He clung to the strap of a bag hitched over his shoulder and listened as they told him that he might not emerge from the building as soon as he had planned.
“I had no idea,” the man said, crossing his arms tightly and raising his eyebrows. “I was under the impression that the whole thing would take maybe five minutes.”
The volunteers offered him a card listing his rights as well as phone numbers for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and legal representation.
They asked him to leave his address book with them, so that they could contact his acquaintances if he were to be detained inside the building.
He fumbled in his pockets for some source of source of personal information. Passing a police officer, he joined a line of men that wound through the JFK building’s lobby between cloth tapes.
“This is a kind of experiment,” said Nancy Murray, an activist from the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
She discussed previous detainments during the registration process—such as hundreds of arrests in Calif. this December that sparked a protest in Los Angeles.