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Instant Prisoner

Since 9/11, there's no such thing as a routine visit to the INS.

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Asim Salam wanted to go downtown by himself on February 6, but his father-in-law insisted on coming along. "You are new in the midwest," Shahid Sheikh told him. "You don't know it very well." Salam was complying with the Department of Justice's Special Registration program, which requires males over 16 visiting from designated countries--most of them, like Salam's native Pakistan, predominantly Muslim--to report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and account for their presence in the United States. Salam had heard of the arrests of hundreds of nonimmigrants who registered in Los Angeles in December. But he thought he had nothing to worry about.

Salam arrived in this country in May 2000 on an F-1 student visa, and for two years pursued a master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California. After graduating he obtained a one-year extension on his visa--called optional practical training (OPT)--that allowed him to work in his field in order to gain experience. Salam worked part-time in California training telecommunications technicians. On a visit to Illinois in August he met Aleena Sheikh, a sociology major at UIC, whose parents were old friends of his family. Salam and Aleena stayed in touch after he returned to Los Angeles, and in November he moved to Naperville to marry her.

After the wedding Salam moved in with the Sheikh family until he could find his feet in the job market. Since Aleena was a U.S. citizen Salam applied for a green card. He was waiting for a response from the INS when he learned about Special Registration. The Office of International Services at USC had assured him that being out of work would not affect his OPT visa extension. The job market was tight in Salam's field, and unemployed foreign students on OPT, he was told, were usually cut some slack. Furthermore, Salam had friends in other cities who were out of work while on OPT, and they hadn't had any problems when they registered. In any case, Salam was married to Aleena.

At around 9:30 AM Salam and Sheikh arrived at the INS offices on the second floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building with a copy of Salam's green card application, his passport, his employment authorization card, and letters from USC verifying his status as a foreign student. When Salam's turn came, a woman took him into an office and began questioning him. What was his wife's name? Was he employed? Where did he go to school? After about half an hour she told him he'd have to accompany her to the 23rd floor to complete the interview. In the elevator she explained the standard follow-up procedures of Special Registration--Salam would have to report every year for interviews as long as he remained a nonimmigrant. Upstairs she led him into an office and then left, telling him she'd be back in a few minutes. She never returned.

Instead, Salam says, an immigration officer wearing a badge appeared and escorted him into another room, then sat wordlessly at a desk. Salam asked him what was going on. "Oh, you're under arrest," the man replied.

Shocked, Salam asked what he had done wrong. The officer told him that being unemployed invalidated his OPT status. "I was like, 'But school has been telling me otherwise,'" says Salam. "He said, 'The school, unfortunately, is not the INS.'"

Salam says the INS officer also impugned the legitimacy of his marriage. "He said, 'When did you meet her?' I said, 'In August.' He said, 'Oh, was it love at first sight?' I found that to be insulting. Who is he to judge my relationship with my wife?"

Salam called his father-in-law on his cell phone, and Sheikh was briefly allowed to come upstairs. Immigration officials were passing in and out of the office where Salam was being held. "They were asking me, 'What is OPT?'" Sheikh says. "'He has to be working if he is on OPT.' They were totally confused. The thing that bothers me, they make the law. And they don't know what is OPT."

Before leaving Salam, Sheikh placed a call to Laurie Cox, the assistant director of international services at USC. The news of Salam's arrest, says Cox, "was a surprise to me, because there is no regulation requiring a student to be employed on OPT." Cox says USC has the country's highest number of foreign students on F-1 and J-1 visas. At any given moment about 1,000 of these are on OPT extensions. Many have trouble finding work or holding onto it in the tight economy, but she's never heard of anyone getting into trouble with the INS for it. Hoping to intervene on Salam's behalf, Cox asked Sheikh to let her speak to the INS officer, but the officer refused to take the call. "Whatever you want to say, say it in court," he said, according to Salam. "We don't have time to research every case."

Salam was taken to another room, where he was handcuffed to a Syrian doctor. With a dozen other detainees of various nationalities, he and the doctor were transported by van to the Chicago District Office of the INS at 10 W. Jackson. There, says Salam, they were subjected to another long round of interviews. After that the men were photographed, fingerprinted, and issued bail bonds. Salam says most of the men received $5,000 bonds, although one who admitted to having a criminal record was given a $25,000 bond. Although Salam has no criminal record, he received a $7,500 bond; he doesn't know why his was higher. According to Salam, most of the men knew they were violating immigration law and were expecting to be arrested, but three or four others like him were completely surprised.

Then Salam was allowed to call Sheikh, who'd gone home, to tell him he could post bond the next day.

Next, the detainees were relieved of their watches and keys and transported to the INS detention facility in the western suburb of Broadview, where they were searched and issued green jumpsuits with "INS" lettered on the backs. Then they were loaded into another van and taken to the Du Page County Jail, arriving sometime around midnight, Salam estimates. Each prisoner was put in his own cell and given blankets, toothpaste, and a toothbrush.

Salam knew he'd be released the following day when his father-in-law posted bail, but he didn't sleep that night. At 4 AM the men were taken from their cells and held together in a locked room until INS agents arrived to take them back to Broadview. There they were herded together into another room, this one with a pay phone. At around 11, Salam was able to place a collect call to his mother-in-law. She told him that her husband had gone to the Chicago District office to post bond.

An electrical engineer like his son-in-law, Shahid Sheikh is a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Lahore 13 years ago. On the morning of February 7, he headed downtown not knowing where Salam was being held. Sheikh says that after waiting for information for two hours at 10 W. Jackson, he was told that Salam was not in the custody of the INS. "I said, 'I'm sitting here until you find him,'" says Sheikh. Eventually, INS staffers located Salam's file and directed Sheikh to the Broadview facility.

Sheikh paid the bond and drove to Broadview, arriving at around one o'clock. Communication with the staff at Broadview was conducted via an intercom by the door. Sheikh asked about Salam. The voice that answered denied knowing whether Salam was there, and told Sheikh to wait. Sheikh joined a group of people waiting in the parking lot for family members to be released. While he was there, his wife called him on his cell phone to tell him that Salam had called from inside Broadview.

At three o'clock Sheikh approached the door again and asked, "Can you tell me when Asim is coming out?" According to Sheikh, the voice on the intercom answered, "Asim is not here. They are in Du Page jail or somewhere. Why don't you go, and he will be released from there." At this point, Sheikh lost his temper and began arguing with the speaker. A woman emerged from the building, he says, and started yelling at him. "She said, 'You have no right to talk to us that way.'" Just then, Sheikh saw his son-in-law walking out the door. "Look! You are lying," he told the woman. "Then she really got angry," says Sheikh. "She said, 'Don't say it again.' I thought, 'I should not be saying this because they can still put me inside or him inside.' So I said, 'OK. All right.'"

Sheikh took Salam home. The first thing Salam did was have a cup of hot tea.

For a few days after his arrest, Salam says he didn't feel like doing anything. Then again, there wasn't much he could do, given that the INS had confiscated his driver's license, passport, and employment authorization card. He waited for the notice he'd been told to expect, announcing the date of his deportation hearing.

Salam's tale doesn't surprise immigration lawyer Bonita Cho, who has handled some Special Registration cases in Chicago. One of her clients breezed through his interview with nothing more than a UPS receipt to back up his claim that he'd submitted an application for a green card. A week later another client submitting the same documentation was arrested and then released on a $15,000 bond. Cho attributes the unpredictability of Special Registration to its newness. "I think it has to do with the fact that this registration came on suddenly and they just didn't have adequate time to train people as to what is going to be constituted as lawful status or not," she says.

Harvey Stein, associate director of the Office of International Affairs at the University of Chicago, has qualified feelings of sympathy for the post-September 11 INS. "I think there's been an awful lot of unfair flak that they've had to take in the press," he says, before adding, "I must say in a sense they deserve it because they've been ruining people's lives for decades now." In a case like Salam's, Stein sees a gray area in the law. "A lot of people misuse that work permission," he says. "That is, they apply for practical training permission mainly because they just want to stay in the United States, not because they actually want to work or need to work in their field. But that's a judgment that is rarely made. It could be an excuse to apply a really harsh standard. But it could also be entirely appropriate. There's a lot of leeway there."

The INS doesn't comment on particular cases, but agency spokeswoman Marilu Cabrera was unambiguous about students on OPT: "If they're not working and they're not enrolled in any classes, then they're basically out of status. With any type of visa, if you're no longer in the United States doing what the visa has allowed you to come in for, then you're out of status."

If this is a tough new reading of immigration law, then American universities have yet to register the change. The way that USC's Laurie Cox sees it, there's nothing in the federal code governing immigration that says that a student on OPT must be employed at all times. "I am confident that this is a universal interpretation," she says. "I just wonder how many people at INS think this is an irregularity."

Asim Salam got his driver's license back a few weeks ago, which is good, because he has a few job interviews lined up. The INS told him it was up to a judge to decide when he would get the rest of his documents back. He's shopping around for a lawyer, and the ones that he's spoken with have been reassuring. He might even get his green card sooner now than he otherwise would have, because the immigration judge at his hearing will make a determination in his case far more quickly than the INS would have.

Four days after his arrest, Salam received a letter from the INS acknowledging receipt of his green card application. Had he waited just a few more days to register, he might have avoided the whole ordeal.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.

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