A Knock at the Door

When 'Voluntary' Terrorism Interviews Are Not Necessarily So

Call a spade a spade—or a stick a stick.

That's what frustrated critics are saying about the so-called voluntary interviews the federal Justice Department has ordered for Middle Eastern holders of U.S. visas—5000 nationwide, 86 of them in New York City. "It has a nice PR fluff to it: 'Oh, this is voluntary,' " says Noel Saleh, a Michigan attorney who represents several interviewees. Immigrant and civil rights champions in the Detroit region, home to the nation's largest concentration of Arab descendants, have forced an unusual level of openness and cooperation from authorities. Still, Saleh says, "it's a real likelihood that there may be consequences in telling [investigators] to go away.'

In New York, where officials have kept the interview process almost entirely secret, foreigners and their defenders have even less confidence that "voluntary" is really so. Last week, authorities announced that the FBI and NYPD would conduct interviews here. Beyond that, advocates have managed to glean little and are looking to the Midwest for clues.

"If they knock on the door, that interview is going to occur," says Haaris Ahmad, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan, where the community had endured "knock-and-talks" for years before September 11. "People are intimidated, or they don't know they can say no," Ahmad says.

Arab American advocates in Michigan therefore lobbied their U.S. attorney fast and early to have letters, rather than agents, sent out to contact interviewees. According to Imad Hamad, Midwest director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the U.S. attorney there also "extended the invitation that we be present at the interviews to put these people at ease." Hamad expresses sympathy for those targeted in New York: "You're getting the style of knocking at the doors, showing up at the workplace or the campuses."

The FBI in New York referred Voice calls to U.S. attorneys Mary Jo White and Alan Vinegrad, who run the local interview effort. White's office did not respond. But Vinegrad spokesman William Muller took questions by e-mail seeking details on who would be interviewed, how targets would be contacted and questioned, and what the consequences might be for declining. Muller replied only, "We are not making further comments at this time."

Several local attorneys said last week that unannounced law enforcement visits to Middle Easterners' homes or workplaces have been common since September 11. Some of those visits resulted in immigration-related detentions or firings by suspicious employers. U.S. citizenship has not guaranteed immunity, attorneys say.

But visa holders—innocent or not—are especially vulnerable in an investigation, say advocates, for reasons ranging from language barriers to ignorance of legal rights to lack of community roots and legal support. Worse, many interviewees come from countries where "you paid a price if you didn't cooperate with authorities," says Dan Kesselbrenner of the National Lawyers Guild in Boston, where interviews are under way.

The potential for accidental self-incrimination is great, attorneys say. Questions range from simple personal data—travel and employment, for instance—to seemingly weighted ones about political views, familiarity with weapons, and knowledge of criminal activity. "What if they've given money to a charity they may not know is suspicious?" asks First Amendment activist Kit Gage. "If they say, 'No, I haven't given any money to any terrorist organization,' but the organization is suspect, they've committed perjury."

With the government's pursuit of certain noncitizens mounting—hundreds have been indefinitely detained for immigration violations; 314,000 visa violators were wanted as of last Wednesday for immediate deportation—those targeted for voluntary interviews in New York are not speaking publicly. Foreigners with valuable information might nevertheless avoid authorities, says Kesselbrenner. "Some of the early detainees came forward to help," he says, "but if they had an immigration violation, they were locked up."

While letters are preferable to surprise visits from FBI agents, attorney Saleh says, recipients still "go into a state of panic." Visa holders, he says, "are here at the pleasure of the host country. Any reason can be used to revoke or not renew your status." And federal interview supervisors in Detroit, despite amiable relations with critics, have not guaranteed that refusing will have no consequences.

Here, visa holders are left only to imagine interview procedures. Authorities' failure to communicate has shaken people's faith in how voluntary participation actually is. Says one New York advocate who last week reached out to the FBI and was awaiting response, "If you're going to knock on the doors of members of the immigrant community at three in the morning, we at least want to know about it."


"Know your rights" resources: American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; National Lawyers Guild; American Civil Liberties Union

 
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