Hundreds of Detainees Still in N.J. Jails

Khalid Musa was like a lot of other Middle Eastern men who came to the United States last summer: young, eager to see relatives, and hoping to make a few dollars while they were here.

And he is like a lot of other Middle Eastern men who have been sitting in jail cells in the United States since last fall. They have been caught up in a wave of mass detentions, leaving hundreds still behind bars on immigration charges, with little or no evidence linking them to a serious crime, let alone the Sept. 11 attacks.

The 23-year-old Saudi native, who has Australian citizenship but lives in Jordan, was arrested Oct. 4 as the government's roundup of recent immigrants was kicking into high gear.

At its peak it took in more than 1,100 foreigners, mostly of Arab or South Asian descent.

Hundreds have since been released or deported, but the Justice Department says about 326 remain in custody, most of them in New Jersey jails.

Special Agent Sandra Carroll, a spokeswoman from the Newark FBI office, defended the post-Sept. 11 dragnet, noting the agency received thousands of tips and leads from the public, many of which resulted in arrests.

"We're doing our job, investigating Sept. 11 and anthrax, and because we're finding individuals as a result of our investigation who have violated immigration law, one doesn't take away from the other," she said.

Carroll could not offer an estimation of how many of those arrested after Sept. 11 were charged with crimes other than immigration violations.

Musa's only transgression was staying in the U.S. beyond the 90 days permitted under a waiver program that admits people from certain countries without requiring a visa.

"He can't understand, and we can't either, why he's been in jail for five months," said Musa's brother-in-law, Samer Mahmoud of Yonkers, N.Y. "He said he's afraid he's going to spend the rest of his life there."

Musa was cleared by the FBI in November, but remains in jail on immigration charges. In mid-February, his lawyer sued the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to get him deported. Regis Fernandez said he was told Musa would be put on a plane as soon as travel arrangements could be made and his belongings retrieved, but that hasn't happened yet.

INS spokesman Russ Bergeron disputed claims by detainees' advocates that the wave of arrests bogged down the system. He noted that the 326 Sept. 11 detainees still in custody in late February represented only a fraction of the nation's total immigration detainee population of over 20,000.

Bergeron also said immigration lawyers are often incorrect in saying their clients have been cleared by the FBI.

"They may have dealt with a local field agent who said he wasn't interested anymore in their client, but the information gathered by the field office has to be vetted against all the information that has been gathered nationwide," Bergeron said.

"The agent might not know that this guy's name turned up in a notebook that was gathered in Afghanistan. Until we're notified by the FBI — in Washington — that a person has been investigated as thoroughly as humanly possible, we're not going to start the process of deporting them."

The detainee population hit its height in late November, just as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began. Detainees complained they were not allowed to pray properly, and were not given halal food prepared according to Muslin law.

Some New Jersey detainees staged a hunger strike during Ramadan to protest their continued detention. Since then, immigration officials granted them more space for communal prayer meetings and gave them halal food on religious holidays.

The government has taken advantage of the secrecy and indefinite suspensions permitted under the much looser immigration law, instead of the more rigorous provisions of criminal law. It often refuses to release their names, countries of origin, what they were charged with, or at times even how many were being held.

While the detentions may be legal, rights groups say they're far from just.

The government "rounded up a thousand people and hardly found anything," said New Jersey immigration attorney Sohail Mohamed. "It shows how desperate they are to show that they're doing something."

The American Civil Liberties Union's New Jersey chapter is suing in an effort to get names of all INS detainees.

But INS spokesman Bergeron said the paucity of information will continue.

"Clearly, it is not in the interest of that investigation, the war, or the United States to provide information to our enemies," he said.