Last Thursday evening, the American Civil Liberties Union, local attorneys, University officials and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee led a presentation explaining the threats to immigrants and international students that the Justice Department”s plan to interview students creates. The panel provided information in an attempt to educate individuals who received letters from U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins requesting interviews about information that they may possess relating to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Collins, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, has sent out 566 letters asking men from south Asia and the Middle East who have entered the country since 2000 to participate in an interview. Collins” action is part of a nation-wide investigation in which 5,000 men will be questioned. Seventy letters were sent to men in the Ann Arbor area and many of those recipients are believed to be University students. While many in the public have viewed the Justice Department”s interviews as a relatively benign course of action, the interviews pose a real threat to University students.
The example of a student in Ohio illustrates the serious repercussions that can emerge from an interview. He had contacted his advisers and was told that it was permissible to work, but did not learn that it was a violation of his visa terms to work off-campus. When officials interviewed him this fact was uncovered and his case was turned over to an immigration judge, who ruled he was in violation of his visa, later initiating deportation proceedings.
Another disturbing fact is the method in which the interviews are conducted. The agent may ask the subject, “have you known anyone who has broken the law.” It is probable that the individual being interviewed would interpret this question in the narrow sense of terrorism. Later in the interview they can ask, “how many of your friends drink underage?” If the two answers are inconsistent, the felony of lying to a federal official has been committed. Thus, an individual can easily fall into a trap with the possible ramifications of deportation.
The willingness of federal officials to use these interviews to ensnare vulnerable immigrants for technicalities points to a duplicitous motive. Instead of properly allocating resources to find those actually involved with the terrorist attacks, the Justice Department may be in fact targeting innocent international students to create a false sense of success. The Justice Department”s actions are part of an elaborate public relations campaign that sacrifices individuals to soothe the fears of the public.
The immigrant population is particularly vulnerable to interviews. Those interviewed often come from nations ruled by dictatorships and are unaware of their rights in the U.S. In addition, the fear of deportation in the immigrant community is acute. This fear is clearly illustrated by the low turnout at Thursday”s panel by those who had actually received letters, along with their desire to speak anonymously. Reports that individuals who have been in the U.S. since before 2000 have mistakenly received the letters has compounded these fears.
Fortunately Collins” decision to mail letters reduces some of these fears. Instead of being confronted completely unprepared and unsure of their rights, individuals have the time to learn their rights. The University should be applauded for its actions, as it has made Student Legal Services available for one-on-one consultations and several University faculty members are also offering their expertise for students.
Despite these significant measures, those who have received letters are now faced with a confounding situation. If they do not come forward for the interviews they risk suspicion of terrorist activity and a likely follow-up visit from law enforcement officials. If they decide to be interviewed both the possibility of deportation and future targeting from federal officials exist.
The Justice Department”s interviews are not a credible method for protecting the U.S. from terrorism. The government is pursuing a vulnerable group of individuals due to their vulnerability and not actual terrorists. This action is unfortunate for both those who must undergo the interview process and the general public, which is being misled.