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Arab-American Leaders Talk About Interviews, Some Still Wary

Though initial interviews in the terrorism investigation have gone well, some Arab-American leaders say they're still wary of federal authorities' plans to interview hundreds of area men.

High among the concerns is what happens to those men who've overstayed their visas or who have some other immigration violation. So far, there have been mixed messages from attorneys, local leaders and authorities.

"I was pleasantly surprised at the non-confrontational nature of the interviews. ... It was not as searing as I had anticipated," said Noel Saleh, a Detroit immigration attorney. "It doesn't mean I've changed my position on the interviews."

Saleh said the three men who were interviewed in his office Monday were asked their immigration status. His clients were students with current visas.

"I would be heartened to hear that any information as to minor immigration violations or any immigration violation would not be reported as an inducement for people to be forthcoming," Saleh said. "But that's certainly not my understanding."

But John Bell, special agent in charge of the Detroit FBI office, said Tuesday that interviewers aren't asking about the men's immigration status. That would be "detrimental" to the effort, Bell said.

Bell said, however, that if an immigration violation comes out during the interview, law enforcement officials have to take appropriate action.

Saleh argued that it's inevitable a person would reveal their status because they are asked to prove their identity at the interview's start.

More than 600 men in Michigan have been identified as part of the Justice Department's nationwide effort to contact more than 5,000 visitors and determine if they have been recruited by Usama bin Laden's terrorist organization, Al Qaeda.

The men targeted for interviews come from more than 60 countries — including the Middle East and the Philippines, Indonesia and India — where Al Qaeda is known to be active.

Michigan is home to about 350,000 Arab-Americans, with the majority living in the southeastern part of the state. Letters were sent to more than 560 men in southeast Michigan.

In western Michigan, officials have been going door-to-door to talk to the about 85 men there. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lloyd Meyer said Tuesday that about half the interviews have been conducted. He said no one has declined, and several men have offered to be translators.

"It's going even better than we expected. We're finding a 100 percent cooperation rate with those individuals we contact," Meyer said. "They're eager and enthusiastic to sit down with federal agents."

He said he doesn't know if agents are asking about immigration status, but said "our focus is not INS technicalities." Officials there hope to finish interviews next week, he said.

In southeastern Michigan, the deadline for responding to the letters was extended from Tuesday to Dec. 10, in part to give people time to consider an incentive that would give foreigners a fast track to U.S. citizenship if they provide useful information about terrorists, authorities said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Cares said as of early Tuesday, about 185 men had responded to letters, a half-dozen had been interviewed, and one had declined the request. Cares said if someone declines an interview, that is the end of the process. He did not have updated figures late Tuesday afternoon.

Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said none of the men in interviews he attended Monday were asked their immigration status.

"The agent made it pretty clear he's not there to arrest anyone," Hamad said.

But, Hamad said "it's not that we're fully relaxed. ... Simply because you wonder if it's the standard style [followed] by all agents."