February Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

“I have been living in the US for over three years. I first entered the US on a visitor’s visa and then stayed on to work here. Do you think I should register?” asks Abdul Ghafoor, as the first batch of Pakistanis wait outside the US Immigration and Naturalisation office in New York, on January 13, the first day of registration.

Ghafoor’s question reflects the uncertainty prevalent amongst Pakistanis living in the US, who fear being detained by the US Immigration services under the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a new registration law which came into effect after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The US Attorney General, John Ashcroft, had directed non-immigrant visitors from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen to report to INS offices during December and January. Pakistani and Saudi Arabian visitors were grouped in the second stage of registrations, and were asked to comply with the NSEERS by February 21, while citizens of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan and Kuwait have been directed to report to the INS between February 24 and March 28.

Although nationals of approximately 25 Muslim countries have been asked to register with the INS, Pakistanis have been most affected by the new laws. More Pakistanis than nationals of any other Muslim country, had come illegally to the US in the past, hoping that the US would regularise their status by giving them amnesty. This hope was not without precedent as the US has, in the past, granted aliens legal status. The last big amnesty was declared in 1987, when thousands of illegal immigrants from all over the world were legalised.

Pakistani groups argue that given Pakistan’s front-line state in the US war on global terrorism, its nationals should have been granted a waiver. According to estimates of the US Immigration department, 15,000 to 20,000 Pakistanis will be registering under the new law. But Pakistani organisations believe that a daunting 100,000 will be queuing to register.

The hue and cry raised by Pakistanis in the United States had a significant impact on the newly elected government of Zafarullah Jamali, which was also quick to criticise the US registration laws, fearing a backlash at home and a drain on foreign exchange. The subsequent visit of Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri to the United States was a desperate attempt to persuade the Bush administration to grant Pakistanis a waiver from the registration process, thus allowing the incumbent Pakistani government to save face at home.

Whereas Kasuri had privately dubbed this exercise, “mission impossible,” given the inability of US allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt to cut a similar deal, he promised Pakistanis at home that he would leave no stone unturned to persuade the Bush administration to reverse its registration policy and thus avert the forced deportations of thousands of Pakistanis.

And true to Kasuri’s prediction, it was just 10 days before his visit to Washington that, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, stated that the US would definitely not exempt Pakistanis from the NSEERS registration process. “We have to secure our border, but individuals who are here legally with proper documentation have nothing to fear from these registration procedures. Nobody should see this as something targeted against Pakistan,” he said.

Defending his position, Powell went on to list the concessions granted to Pakistan, in return for its cooperation in the US war on terrorism. “I think we have done a great deal for Pakistan over the last 16 months since 9/11. We have removed a lot of obstacles to trade, we have provided Pakistan with additional access to markets, with economic assistance and various forms of relief, and we have been in close touch with the Pakistani government. And I think we provided some assistance in defusing the crisis of last year between Pakistan and India.” However, he admitted that the US registration programme had hit the community hard. “I do know that our registration procedures (NSEERS) that apply to a number of countries, are having a negative effect. However, one has to appreciate that the United States has an obligation to secure its borders and the purpose of these procedures is not to target anyone or to intimidate anyone,” he continued.

This position was reiterated following Powell’s January 29 meeting with Foreign Minister Kasuri at the State Department. Kasuri could only appease the Pakistani community by promising to seek administrative flexibility from the US authorities for Pakistanis with minor visa violations.

A blanket waiver was ruled firmly out of the question.

Meanwhile, in the face of Pakistan’s impotence in protecting its citizens’ rights, horror stories involving US immigration authorities abound. “I was detained for being out of status,” says a Pakistani who went to register with the INS. It didn’t matter that I had filed a 245-I in 2001. It didn’t matter that my wife, a natural citizen, has filed a green card application for me. I was unlucky to be interviewed by an INS officer when he was in a bad mood. Some lawyer had managed to annoy the entire INS special registration personnel. They retaliated by arresting anyone that was currently out of status, regardless of the documents they had filed. According to them, if you are out of status once and have not received your green card, you can be arrested. They had INS officers ready to arrest everyone before they were even interviewed. The writing is on the wall: “Muslims go home!”