Hundreds of men from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and the Sudan were detained in Southern California jails after coming forward to comply with a new rule to register with immigration authorities, Dec. 18.

Shocked and frustrated civil rights groups estimated more than 500 people have been arrested in Los Angeles, neighboring Orange County and San Diego under a new nationwide anti-terrorism program. Some reports put the figure as high as 1,000.

The head of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union compared the arrests to the internment of Japanese Americans in camps during the Second World War.

“I think it is shocking what is happening. It is reminiscent of what happened in the past with the internment of Japanese Americans. We are getting a lot of telephone calls from people. We are hearing that people went down wanting to cooperate and then they were detained,” said Ramona Ripston, the ACLU’s executive director.

In a development that confirms initial fears about the registration program, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is apparently using it as a pretext for the mass detention of hundreds of Middle Eastern and Muslim men and boys, according to the ACLU.

In Los Angeles, 3,000 people rallied against the detentions. Some signs said “What Next? Concentration Camps?” and “Detain Terrorists Not Innocent Immigrants.”

“I came to this country over 40 years ago and got drafted in the Army, and I thought if I die it’s for a good cause, defending freedom, democracy and the Constitution,” George Hassan, one of the protesters, told The Los Angeles Times “Oppressed people come here because of that democracy, that freedom, that Constitution. Now our president has apparently allowed the INS vigilantes to step outside the Constitution.”

“Given the evidence, there is no alarmism in saying this is a round-up,” said Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

“Attorney General Ashcroft is using the immigrant registration program to lock up people who already have provided extensive information as part of their green card applications,” he said. “Therefore the purpose is clearly not to get information but rather to selectively arrest, detain and deport Middle Eastern and Muslim men in the United States.”

In most cases, the INS arrested men who were simply waiting for approval of their green card applications, or those with minor visa problems caused by incompetence in the agency itself. The San Diego Union Tribune reported on July 27, 2002, that the agency recently failed to process more than 200,000 change of address forms and then unceremoniously dumped them in the largest underground records facility in the world – an abandoned mine near Kansas City – putting hundreds of thousands at risk of wrongful arrest and deportation for failing to report a change of address.

“The INS is wasting an incredible amount of government resources in rounding up these men and boys,” said Dalia Hashad, the ACLU’s Arab, Muslim and South Asian advocate.

One attorney, who said she saw a 16-year-old pulled from the arms of his crying mother, called it madness to believe that the registration requirements would catch terrorists.

“His mother is six-and-a-half months pregnant. They told the mother he is never going to come home – she is losing her mind,” said attorney Soheila Jonoubi, who spent Dec. 18, 2002, amid the chaos of the downtown INS office attempting to determine the status of her clients.

Jonoubi said that the mother has permanent residence status and that her husband, the boy’s stepfather, is a U.S. citizen. The teenager came to the country in July on a student visa and was on track to gain permanent residence, the lawyer said.

By January 10, 2003, citizens of 13 additional countries – Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen – must also submit to registration, a move that could push the detentions into the tens of thousands, the ACLU said.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) President Ziad Asali said, “our concerns about this new program of alien registration based on national origin seem to have been all too well founded.” Asali added, “this program, which is antithetical to our American values of equal treatment under the law, seems to be, in practice, a vehicle for incarcerating large numbers of people who pose no threat and who do not belong in jail. There is no evidence that this action by the administration will enhance national security in the face of terrorist threats against the United States. On the contrary, it might play into the hands of those who claim that the U.S. government is motivated by anti-Islamic sentiments.” ADC has consistently opposed new alien registration polices as clearly discriminatory on the basis of national origin.