January 31, 2002
Groups Find Way to Get Names of INS Detainees
By Hanna Rosin
Two New Jersey civil rights groups have taken advantage of an existing Immigration and Naturalization Service policy to try to collect the names of potentially hundreds of people detained in the government's post-Sept. 11 dragnet, effectively getting around the Justice Department's blackout on information about the detainees.
While authorities still refuse to provide a list of the detainees or any information about their cases, they say they are powerless to prevent the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Friends Service Committee from holding legal presentations in INS facilities to any detainee who would like to come.
These "Know Your Rights Presentations" are a long-standing tradition at many INS facilities. Usually dozens or even hundreds of detainees show up, if only to relieve the boredom of prison routine, or to get free legal advice. Unlike criminal defendants, INS detainees have no right to legal representation, and historically about 90 percent of immigrants do not get any.
Until now, finding out information about the post-Sept. 11 detainees held in INS custody has been a slow and haphazard process. About 112 detainees are held on federal criminal charges and only their names are public.
But the names of the 725 detainees held in INS custody have been kept secret, and an INS facility would allow only interested parties to meet with them if they already had the detainee's name, say from a lawyer or relative.
But these mass meetings would allow the legal groups to easily compile a list of dozens of detainees, and release them to anyone who was interested. About 460 detainees are still in INS custody, and civil rights groups have estimated that a high percentage of those are held in New Jersey facilities.
The rest of the 725 have been deported or released.
In hearings and news conferences over the last four months, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has stood firm in his refusal to release the identities of the detainees, despite repeated requests from senators, journalists and civil rights groups.
To defend his position, Ashcroft has cited privacy acts, the Patriot Act and the urgency of the war against terrorism.
"When the United States is at war I will not share valuable intelligence with our enemies," Ashcroft said at a news conference in late November. "We might as well mail this list to Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda network as to release it."
But yesterday Justice Department spokesman Dan Nelson said officials would not try to prevent the groups from entering the New Jersey facilities.
"We regularly allow organizations to give these legal presentations at INS facilities," he said.
The INS policy has existed for years and applies to any detention facility in the United States. It is unclear why immigrant advocacy groups have not taken advantage of it sooner to get more information about post-Sept. 11 detainees.
The two New Jersey groups say they had earlier requested and were denied access to the Hudson County Correctional Center and the Passaic County Jail, two facilities with contracts to house INS detainees.
But Kerry Gill, INS spokesman in Newark, said they were denied access to the facilities because they declined to follow the proper procedure, which requires them to make the request by letter. The two groups sent a letter on Dec. 28, and they received routine approval about two weeks later.
The national ACLU sued on Dec. 5 to get the Justice Department to release information about all the detainees in INS custody.
Yesterday's development was helpful but "does not obviate the government's need to lift the veil of secrecy," said Emily Whitfield, spokeswoman for the national ACLU. "The government still has an affirmative obligation to tell us who is being held where and on what charge."
Advocacy groups have claimed during the four-month terrorist investigations that the government's excessive secrecy has eroded the legal rights of the detainees, particularly those in INS custody.
Only one detainee, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged in connection with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Advocates have long suspected that the rest of the INS detainees are held on minor violations of immigration law, which in a less sensitive time would have attracted no notice, and are now still being held in strict secrecy although there is no serious suspicions of their connections to terrorism.
In INS courts, the Justice Department has invoked what has come to be known as the "mosaic" rationale, telling INS judges that detainees should remain in custody because although their cases may not look suspicious now, they may form part of a larger picture of terrorist activity once more evidence is unearthed.
Copyright © 2002, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.
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