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Jail time for visa crimes called unfair
P Attorneys say young Arabs are being locked up unjustly in the wake of terror investigations.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The people being held across the country as part of the terrorism investigation include many who have been jailed for weeks because of relatively minor visa violations, attorneys who represent some of them say.
More than 1,000 people have been detained nationally since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Attorney General John Ashcroft said Tuesday that 548 people remain in custody on immigration violations.
While some of those people have also been charged with federal crimes, many are young adults who violated their visas -- often going to work when they were supposed to be only visiting the country, according to the attorneys and civil rights groups.
Angela Ferguson, an attorney representing several people jailed in Kansas City on visa violations, said she has been astonished by the way they have been treated.
"I really do understand the security issues," she said. "But the FBI has cleared these people of any connection to the terrorist attacks. There is no reason to suspect they are a danger to the United States. But they have been held indefinitely, with all their rights taken away."
Ferguson said she tried to take one Muslim client an Islamic holy book, the Quran, so he could participate in Ramadan, but jail officials refused to deliver it. Others have been denied visitors, she said.
Bond hearings have been held last week and this week for several of those held in Kansas City and St. Louis. The violators generally are allowed to post bond and voluntarily leave the country. The minimum bond is $1,500, Ferguson said, and it must be paid in full. The detainees get the bond back when they return to their native lands.
"These are 'Let me out I want to go home' hearings," she said. "If you let me out, I'll pack my bags and go. These are not criminal proceedings."
Ferguson said as of last week, about 65 people were being held in the Kansas City area for visa violations, with several others held in the St. Louis area.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Kansas City declined to say how many people are held, or to discuss the cases. All calls to the office were directed to the service's Washington D.C. office, which did not return calls Tuesday.
Ashcroft defends process
During a news conference Tuesday, Ashcroft defended the secrecy surrounding the detainees, saying he did not want to "blacklist" innocent people or unwittingly give valuable information to terrorist leaders, particularly Osama Bin Laden.
At one point, about 30 of those being held in the Kansas City district were Israeli citizens. Many of those people have had hearings and been released. Most of the other detainees are reportedly Arab or Middle Eastern.
Marvin Szneler, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau /American Jewish Community in Kansas City, noted that Israelis were less than 10 percent of the nearly 300 people reportedly detained in Missouri since the terrorist attacks. He said his group trusted the INS to treat the cases appropriately.
David Leopold, an attorney who represented 11 Israeli clients in Cleveland, Ohio, disagreed. He said before Sept. 11, most people picked up for working without authorization spent two or three hours in jail and then were released on their own recognizance.
"I and everyone in the country wish the FBI and law enforcement godspeed in their efforts to catch terrorists," he said. "And no one is saying people who have truly violated their visas should not be sent home. ... But this is still a democratic nation, a free country based on principles and the rule of law. The public has a right to know who is behind bars and why."