The Associated PressCLIFTON, N.J. -- In the more than two years since he arrived from Egypt, Zeinhom Ayoub Ramadan had been living his own American dream. He found a job in a doughnut store, fell in love, got married and was trying to start a family.
And when he heard earlier this year of a requirement that young men who had recently immigrated to the United States register with the government, he readily complied.
"I was working hard and living in a free country," said Ramadan, 33, of Rockaway Township. "Everything was right. The people here were great. I respected everything here, and everyone respected me, too." He added: "Why should I be afraid?"
Because he had overstayed his six-month visa, U.S. immigration officials said.
He and more than 13,000 other young, mostly Muslim immigrants who complied with the order to register now face possible deportation. Like thousands of others in the same situation, Ramadan is shocked at the turn of events.
"When I came here I dreamed about living in peace," he said. "I wanted to get married, to work and make a beautiful life. My future was here. Now, I don't know."
Hoping to keep better track of recent arrivals from countries linked to terrorism, federal authorities last fall began requiring young men from certain nations to register.
The last deadline was in late April for males over 16 from Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Similar deadlines had passed for males from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan and many other countries.
A total of 144,513 immigrants registered nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Enforcement, formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Of those, 13,434 have had deportation proceedings started against them.
The agency said 2,783 were detained, with 99 remaining in custody as of June 1, the most recent statistics available.
Immigration lawyers and advocates complain that the registration program amounts to racial profiling and does nothing to prevent attacks, because terrorists are not likely to register.
But agency spokesman Bill Strassberger said: "We need to know who's coming in, are they leaving, and what they do while they're here. In a post-9-11 world, we need to develop a system to track entrances and exits. Let's start with the higher-risk visitors, those who come from nations where Al-Qaida is known to exist."
Ramadan went to the Newark BCIS office on April 24, expecting to spend an hour or two filling out forms before going home. Instead, he was photographed and fingerprinted, he had to turn over his driver's and marriage licenses and his credit card, and he was taken to the Hudson County Jail, where he was held for six days before his wife could post $5,000 bail.
"I asked them, 'You already have my papers; why am I going to jail? What did I do wrong? Who will take care of my wife?"' Ramadan said.
His lawyer, Sohail Mohammed, hopes Ramadan will ultimately be allowed to stay in the United States, given that his wife, an American citizen, filed a document called an immediate relative petition that should make him eligible to apply for permanent residency. But because the government has started deportation proceedings, the application is on hold, and Ramadan could be put on a plane to Egypt before it can be considered, Mohammed said.
Many others have refused to register, either fleeing to Canada or going underground. Mian Zahid Ghani, a Pakistani journalist living in North Brunswick, was one of several Pakistanis who held a news conference in December asking that their homeland be removed from the list of nations in the registration program. Shortly afterward, two of his sons, Usman, 24, and Umer, 20, fled to Canada rather than comply.
"Losing loved ones cannot be described in words," Ghani said. "My youngest, 6-year-old son is the one who is missing them the most. As a family, we are split. It is painful."
Many of those who registered said they expected their cooperation to buy them some leniency, despite having overstayed their visas. But that is not happening, nor was it ever promised, Strassberger said.
"Fulfilling the requirements of one law, the registration, is not going to overrule a violation of a second law, which is overstaying a visa," he said. "People in this predicament placed themselves in it by not adhering to the promise they made when they entered the U.S. -- that they are going to return home."