A panel of civil liberty advocates and attorneys attempted last night to calm fears and clarify issues related to letters sent by the U.S. Justice Department asking Middle Eastern men to participate in interviews as part of an investigation into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The letters were sent out to 566 men in southeastern Michigan between the ages of 18 and 33.
The event was organized to inform letter recipients of their legal rights. As many as 80 of the recipients are University students.
LSA junior Michael Simon, campus co-chair of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the letters, which were sent out last week, do not indicate that a person can have a lawyer and translator present during the interview.
“It”s a very uncomfortable situation. To young people, international students who may not know English very well, a team of federal investigators is likely to scare the heck out of them,” Simon said.
“Another thing to be concerned about are the consequences of being questioned. If you say the wrong thing, who knows what might happen. It could be as serious as deportation and we just don”t know. That”s why we urge legal representation,” he said.
The Washtenaw County ACLU will provide free legal consultation and representation to anyone being asked for an interview by the FBI. University Student Legal Services will also offer free, one-on-one consultation. In addition, several University faculty members have volunteered to sit in on the interviews.
“Ninety-eight to 99 percent of the time federal agents will decline to interview you in the presence of an attorney,” said Noel Saleh, an Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee immigration attorney. “It”s a terrible catch-22 situation Even if you”ve done nothing it is a no-win situation for anyone who receives this letter.”
“They have a lot of experience in getting people to talk even when they don”t want to. You certainly don”t want to say something that”s not true,” he added.
ACLU Legal Director Michael Steinberg said that although interview participation is voluntary, “you don”t lessen the chances of them coming back and knocking on your door.”
A University student who wished to remain anonymous received the Justice Department letter and said he is still in shock.
“I heard it on the news that 5,000 people (nationwide) would be questioned and I thought nothing of it. I laughed, actually,” he said.
“I have been in this country for so long that I did not think I would become involved. I will definitely discuss it with my lawyer first. After that I will probably talk to (the investigators),” he said.
Campus ADC President Paul Saba, an LSA senior, expressed his discontent with what he described as the government”s obvious racial targeting of Middle Eastern men.
“It”s a form of ethnic profiling. It”s been deemed by the Supreme Court unconstitutional to target people by their race, gender or ethnicity. When we are all going through the same difficult times, it is a terrible thing that national security purposes have taken precedence at the expense of civil liberties,” Saba said.
LSA freshman Mohammad Khateeb, a student from Jordan, said that although he did not receive a letter he is still concerned.
“As an international student, I”m afraid that they won”t let me back into the U.S.,” Khateeb said. “I feel sad that the government couldn”t find a better solution. I don”t know what they could do better, but the idea itself is increasing hatred towards Arabs.”
The event was sponsored by the ACLU and the ADC.