PATERSON, N.J. – When the FBI came knocking on his door, Malek Zeidan wasn't worried.
The 44-year-old doughnut shop worker had been living in northern New Jersey for 14 years, his only brush with the law a traffic ticket years earlier. So he didn't think twice when federal agents sought to question his roommate in a possible marriage fraud case.
While they were there, they asked Zeidan about his own immigration status, and he candidly admitted he had overstayed his visa. They asked him to talk with immigration officials.
He did, was promptly arrested and detained for 40 days, becoming one of the more than 1,100 people, mostly Muslims from Arab, Middle Eastern or southern Asian nations, who were held on immigration charges while authorities tried to determine if they were terrorists.
A year later, most of the detainees have been released. Only a handful have been charged with crimes, none relating to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Free on bail while fighting deportation back to Syria, Zeidan, like many others, is struggling with the new realities of life in America, still trying to understand how he became part of the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history.
"I went to jail for nothing," he said. "If you did something wrong, then you go to jail, and I don't have any sympathy for you. But I didn't do anything. Other countries put you in jail for no reason, but I never thought it could happen here."
It is a common refrain among detainees and their families. Most came to the United States in search of a better life, working menial, low-paying jobs. Almost all overstayed tourist visas. Before Sept. 11, such an infraction was widely ignored by federal authorities.
But after the attacks, it became a tool to hold suspects indefinitely while the FBI tried to determine if they were involved with or knew anything about Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
Attorney General John Ashcroft defends the detentions, and the secrecy surrounding them, as crucial to preventing future terrorist attacks.
"Our most important objective is to save innocent lives from further acts of terrorism by identifying, disrupting, and dismantling terrorist networks," he said in an Aug. 7 speech to a judicial conference in Minnesota.
"Like many Americans, I am concerned about the expansion of preventative law enforcement. Each and every person detained arising from our investigation into 9/11 has been detained under the law, with an individualized predicate -- a criminal charge, an immigration violation, or a judicially issued material witness warrant," Ashcroft said. "We have not engaged, nor will we engage, in preventive detention."
But immigrant and civil liberties advocates say the detentions were too convenient.
"We are selectively enforcing our immigration laws, and there is a vengeance to it," said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the Newark chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is battling the government in two cases involving detainee secrecy.
In a ruling that included a harsh rebuke of the Bush administration, a federal appeals court panel in Cincinnati ruled Aug. 26 that the government cannot hold secret deportation hearings for a Lebanese man with suspected terrorism ties. The decision that could affect other cases in the terrorism investigation.
"A government operating in the shadow of secrecy stands in complete opposition to the society envisioned by the framers of our Constitution," wrote Circuit Judge Damon J. Keith.
All but 74 of the detainees had been released as of Aug. 9, according to the most recent accounting from the Justice Department.
The government for months refused to release the detainees' names or other basic information about them, and directed courts to close many of their hearings to the public. On Aug. 3 a federal judge ordered the government to release the names of detainees -- including those already set free -- but later stayed her order to give government lawyers more time to appeal.
The judge rejected arguments by the U.S. Justice Department that releasing the names could endanger national security by alerting terrorist groups to who is -- or is not -- being held.
In addition, the ACLU and two New Jersey newspapers are challenging the closed hearings. The U.S. Supreme Court granted the Bush administration an emergency stay that prevents the court hearings from being opened until a federal appeals court can examine the issue more thoroughly in September.
Zeidan also fought back, suing to open his immigration hearing. Quickly after the suit was filed, he was allowed to go free on a $10,000 bond.
These days he drives an ice cream truck from early morning until late at night, selling fudge pops and strawberry shortcake bars at $1 apiece in a losing attempt to pay his mounting bills, including fees from three lawyers.
Zeidan is single and has no close relatives in the United States except for some cousins. He figures he has a 50-50 chance of being sent back to Syria. Yet even despite his disillusionment with his detention, he still wants to stay here.
"We love the freedom in this country," he said. "That's why we we came here."