On February 26 the small town of Moscow, Idaho, saw more commotion than it had since a truck camper exploded in a vacant lot last September. While the town was still sleeping, two military planes landed at a nearby airport, and at 4:30 am, at least 100 armed federal agents raided a University of Idaho student apartment–all to arrest a single Saudi graduate student, Sami al-Hussayyen. As dawn broke, they interrogated at least twenty other Middle Eastern students and their spouses in their homes, sometimes in front of their children. Within hours, the Feds indicted al-Hussayyen on felony charges of visa fraud, accusing him of supporting a Detroit-based Muslim charity that, they alleged, had links to overseas terrorists. (The group has not been formally charged.)
Word of the raid spread quickly among foreign students across the country, as did news in December that six Middle Easterners studying in Colorado were jailed when they complied with the INS’s “special registration” program, required of men from twenty-five predominantly Muslim countries. Their offense: dropping below the twelve-hour course minimum required for a student visa, even though they had permission from their schools. Another round of “enforcement action,” to use agency parlance, had apparently begun.
Thanks to Hani Hanjour, the 9/11 hijacker who entered the United States on a student visa, South Asian and Middle Eastern students joined the government’s suspect list soon after the attacks. Since then, says the ACLU’s Lucas Guttentag, attorneys have observed “a persistent pattern of discriminatory investigations and enforcement against Muslims and South Asians, especially foreign students from Middle Eastern countries.” An untold number disappeared in the mass INS sweeps immediately after 9/11. Then came the “special registration” arrests, which included many students. And round three has just begun: The Homeland Security Department’s new immigration enforcement agency, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), introduced a massive database in January that will soon track the country’s 1.2 million foreign students and visiting scholars in real time.
Some of the tactics used with students are constitutionally questionable. In the Idaho raids, for example, combined teams of FBI and INS agents interrogated students, blurring the line between criminal and civil questioning. Under immigration law, foreign students must answer any question relating to their visa status, yet anyone questioned by the FBI–even a noncitizen–has the right to remain silent. UI law professor Elizabeth Brandt, who coordinated the students’ legal representation, said the FBI was “bootstrapping” INS authority to pressure students to answer questions related to criminal activity.
Indeed, a Moscow attorney present at one interrogation described “threats of criminal prosecution, threats of being placed in deportation proceedings, threats of immediate arrest.” The lawyer, who asked not to be named, said many of those interrogated were not given Miranda warnings, and at least one was refused when she asked to call a lawyer. The attorney said veteran defense lawyers present at the interrogations were “really shaken.”
Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez would not comment on the Idaho raid except to say, “The FBI has clear guidance on how to handle those issues, Miranda rights.” On April 25 al-Hussayyen was ordered deported for visa fraud, and ICE is holding him in solitary confinement as he awaits a criminal trial.
Since the Idaho and Colorado incidents, there has been a lull in the flashy raids. But foreign students are still on edge, as listservs carry whispers from campus to campus of interrogations, deportations and disappeared students.
Muslim foreign students say the pressure of continual scrutiny has led them to curtail travel plans and political activities. For some, this has meant agonizing professional sacrifices. Berkeley sophomore Imad Ahmed may turn down an internship with his “idol,” an internationally esteemed human rights lawyer in Lahore. Although Ahmed is a British citizen and left Pakistan as an infant, he had to register with the INS and worries that he might have trouble re-entering the United States if he leaves.
Others are simply looking for a way out, believing the climate will only get worse. “I’ve had many friends leave,” says Sharmeen Obaid, a Pakistani graduate student at Stanford University. “One quit a bank job in New York. The rest were in the process of applying for jobs but decided to go back.”
Those who remain will likely see another wave of roundups after August 1, the compliance deadline for colleges to put information on all foreign students into the new ICE database. Once it’s up and running, students will have to be vigilant about filing paperwork and keep schools notified of their every move, as the system’s real-time reporting eliminates any slack that once allowed students and administrators to correct mistakes.
Immigration authorities have already picked up at least two students in good standing because of errors in the glitch-prone system. To this, ICE spokesman Chris Bentley responds, “Are these procedures foolproof? Obviously the answer is no. Could someone be arrested if the database says he is out of status? Yes.”
In New York City, a Bangladeshi community-college student lives a life in limbo as he awaits deportation for a minor visa violation. Coming to America “was the best opportunity of my life,” he said. “But after the buildings fell, I knew this would come. The worst has happened.”