Published December 13, 2001
SAN DIEGO – Ten people — all born in the Middle East — were taken into federal custody in Southern California Wednesday as authorities began rounding up people suspected of violating their student visas — the first crackdown of its kind in the nation.
Immigration officials were seeking a total of 50 people with expired visas who were born in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen, and who live in the San Diego area.
None of those arrested is suspected of involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. One case will be referred to the U.S. Attorney's office, which will decide whether to file criminal charges. The rest of those detained face possible deportation.
Officials at two of the area's biggest universities, the University of California, San Diego, and San Diego State University, said the INS had asked them to check the records of selected students.
UC San Diego received a list of 36 names, all of whom were of Middle Eastern descent. None of those students was arrested. University officials said targeting a particular group of students was "inappropriate."
San Diego State was asked to check on about 200 names, but a school spokesman declined to comment on the investigation.
San Diego's Muslim community has drawn scrutiny from federal investigators since authorities discovered that at least two of the Sept. 11 hijackers lived in the area last year.
The FBI arrested two students at San Diego-area colleges 10 days after the attacks. The two were detained as material witnesses and indicted by grand juries. They remain in custody.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service plans to expand the program to cover holders of expired student visas from other regions — not just the Middle East — in other areas of the country, agency officials said.
But the roundup angered many San Diego residents with Middle Eastern roots.
"This type of activity, people defaulting on their visas, is not particular to the Arab community," said Mohammed Nasser, the director of the San Diego chapter of the Muslim-American Society.
Randall Hamud, an Arab-American attorney representing two San Diego residents arrested as material witnesses in the terror probe, called it a case of "prosecutorial authority that has become persecutorial license."
"Why are they just selecting Middle Easterners?" Hamud said. "When you select a special group for special treatment, it's discriminatory, it's repressive."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.