WASHINGTON – In a law enforcement round-up that spanned the country, more than 1,100 people -- mostly Muslims of Arab, Middle Eastern and south Asian origin -- were detained and threatened with deportation following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Only a handful have been charged with any crime related to terrorism.
The Justice Department has defended detaining the immigrants, most of whom were living in the United States on expired tourist visas. But a year later, critics complain the government has engaged in systematic racial profiling that has done little to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks.
"I went to jail for nothing," said Malek Zeidan, a 14-year New Jersey resident from Syria. He made the mistake of telling federal agents that he overstayed his visa when the FBI came to question him about his roommate in a possible marriage fraud case. When he went to immigration officials at the behest of the agents, he was promptly arrested and detained for 40 days. Out on $10,000 bond, he is now appealing his deportation.
"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," he complained.
While visa-jumpers like Zeidan were widely ignored by federal authorities before Sept. 11, the agency has used the attacks as a tool to hold suspects indefinitely while they try to determine if they were involved with or knew anything about Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.
"Our most important objective is to save innocent lives from further acts of terrorism by identifying, disrupting and dismantling terrorist networks," said Attorney General John Ashcroft in an Aug. 7 speech to a judicial conference in Minnesota.
He said the detentions were key to national security and that the secrecy surrounding them was necessary in protecting both the detainees and the agency's investigations.
"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."
All but 74 of the detainees had been released as of Aug. 9, according to the most recent accounting from the Justice Department.
Immigrant and civil liberties advocates say that's not good enough.
"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 challenging the government in two cases involving detainee secrecy.
Critics are frustrated because 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.
However, the judge rejected arguments by the U.S. Justice Department that releasing the names could endanger national security.
The ACLU and two New Jersey newspapers are also challenging the closed hearings. But in this case, too, the court has 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.
Meanwhile, Zeidan said he has a 50-50 chance of being sent back to Syria, but despite his troubles, he still wants to stay in the U.S.
"We love the freedom in this country," he said. "That's why we came here."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.