Washington, D.C. - With the assistance of the Iranian American Political Action Committee (IAPAC), the Iranian American Bar Association (IABA) held a bipartisan congressional briefing on their recently published investigative report (the "Report") concerning the detention and treatment of Iranian nationals under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System ("NSEERS"). The Report provides a comprehensive, independent analysis of the manner in which the NSEERS special registration program has been implemented, and was prepared with assistance from the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. The briefing, which was publicized by the Republican Senate Conference Committee, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and co-sponsored by Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), was held on July 16, 2004 in the Senate Dirksen office building. In attendance were representatives from the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary as well as legislative staffers from the offices of Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ), Congresswoman Maloney (D-14th/NY), Congressman Marty Meehan (D-5th/MA), and Congressman Dan Burton (R-5th/IN) to name a few.
The objectives of the IABA briefing were: (1) to ensure transparency and accountability in government; (2) to engage in a constructive dialogue ensuring a balanced approach to safeguarding our homeland security without unjustifiably or unnecessarily singling out a particular ethnic community; (3) rebuilding trust between the government and the communities affected by NSEERS; and (4) to facilitate redress for the individuals who were unnecessarily and unjustifiably detained and placed through deportation proceedings. The briefing outlined the issues pertaining to the treatment of Iranian nationals at the hands of the INS after the introduction of the NSEERS program by the United States Justice Department. The program, which was introduced shortly after the events of September 11th, commonly referred to as Special Registration, required males 18-65 years old from designated countries (including Iran) to report to the INS offices throughout the U.S.
Mr. Soroush Richard Shehabi, IABA’s Director for Governmental Affairs and IAPAC Trustee, opened the briefing and introduced his fellow panelists. Mr. Babak Hoghooghi, President of IABA and IAPAC Trustee, spoke briefly on the subject of mistreatment of Iranians by government officials. According to various validated reports, approximately one thousand Iranians voluntarily went to register at the INS offices in Southern California where they were rounded up, hand-cuffed and detained for several days, without attorneys present, and held in facilities without access to their families, doctors and attorneys. Mr. Cyrus Amir-Mokri, IABA Director of Publications and IAPAC Trustee, discussed some of the inconsistencies in the NSEERS program in its content and implementation. The interrogation of individuals, their treatment and detainment was a clear blow to civil liberties. There was significant misconduct by officials of the INS at various stages of the NSEERS process. Many of these individuals, who had left their countries due to repressive measures in their homeland, felt they were being treated the same way in the US and voiced a sentiment of alienation.
Lisa Perlman, whose law firm, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering has studied and researched Homeland Security issues spoke on the way the questionnaire and interrogation of detainees were done. After conducting more interviews with detainees, the Report concluded that there was substantial evidence of improper interrogations, arbitrary detentions, poor detention conditions, and demeaning treatment by INS officials. Immediately after the mass detentions, IABA created a hotline to help the families and the detainees report their concerns and seek legal advice.
Ms. Banafsheh Akhlaghi, a civil attorney and professor of Constitutional law at the John F. Kennedy School in San Francisco, compelled by the reports regarding the treatment of Iranian Americans, told the audience of how she left her job and rushed to the aid of these individuals. She spoke passionately, asking the audience to follow her step-by-step account of what actually happened to the detainees. She pointed out that at first, these individuals who were students, businessmen, and dentists, post-doctorate graduates walked in the INS offices, in California, on their own volition, believing they would be questioned on their status and would leave the place immediately thereafter. The INS website was unclear and ambiguous. Iran was among five countries on its priority list. But there was no indication that anyone who held a legal status would be held without any clear violation to immigration laws. Instead of having a clear plan of what to do with these individuals, the INS rounded them up like common criminals. Most were held without bond, access to attorneys, and contact with their families, some for more than 72 hours to several months in some cases. They were also transferred from one facility to another in the state of California and even to other states, as far as the border of Mexico, ending up in camp-like facilities. The INS reasoning for the transfer was that there were not enough beds to accommodate the detainees. Many of the detainees had not showered for days and did not receive medical examination and those who needed medications were unable to get them.
In her talk with the district director of the INS, Ms. Akhlaghi had pointed out that this procedure is totally illegal under the law and that none of the individuals held had in fact committed any illegal actions and many of them had applications for permanent residency pending with the INS at the time of their detainment. But it was quite obvious that the INS had no prepared plan on how to deal with thousands of people who had come for registration. The right procedures were not followed and no one should have been detained in the first place. The highlight of the briefing was a compelling first hand eyewitness account of an Iranian family’s torment under the NSEERS program. Despite the fact of their pending applications for permanent residency, the family was unjustifiably placed through deportation proceedings as a result of the registration program.
Although the NSEERS program has been suspended temporarily due to its ambiguous nature and the denial of individual rights, with the introduction of the Patriot Act, this registration program can be reinforced at any moment thereby creating an atmosphere of fear for all those innocent individuals affected by this program. Members of the panel voiced their support for the Civil Liberties Restoration Act (S. 2528 and H.R. 4591), which terminates the NSEERS program and provides for the administrative closure of all removal proceedings against aliens that have come about as a result of the NSEERS program, including those who had a pending application before the Department of Labor or the Department of Homeland Security for which there is a visa available. Furthermore, panelists rejected the notion that we can improve national security by singling out travelers/non-immigrants solely based on their nationality and advocated for a more objective, intelligence-based criteria for screening and registering individuals who wish to enter the US.
Mr. Shehabi ended the hearing by emphasizing that the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of all those who abide by the rule of law. There are approximately a million Americans of Iranian descent in the United States who contribute vastly to the economy and social well being of this country and to target them and put them in the category of terrorists is unjustifiable and against the very principles upon which this country was founded.
All panelists agreed that the IABA, in conjunction with other Iranian American organizations, would need to continue educating the community about the laws pertaining to them and informing them of their rights. The IABA, which is a non-profit organization comprised of highly dedicated and professional lawyers in all fields of the law, strives to bring this awareness to the Iranian American community at large and make a contribution in changing some of these policies by showing the folly of targeting individuals based on national origin. The IABA continues to contribute to this discussion by provide meaningful information to Congress and other policy makers in the interest of the United States and all of its citizens including those of Iranian descent.
Paid for by the Iranian American Political Action Committee (IAPAC). This communication is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. Contributions are not tax-deductible as charitable deductions for federal tax purposes.
IAPAC is a registered bi-partisan federal political committee that contributes to candidates for federal office who are attuned to the domestic needs of the Iranian American community. IAPAC focuses exclusively on domestic policy issues such as civil rights and civil liberties, and encourages Iranian Americans to actively participate in the electoral process, to vote and run for political office.