Posted on December 23, 2002 in Washington Watch

There’s a wonderful old saying that describes the situation where “the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.” It aptly characterizes current problems facing U.S. policy vis-a-vis Arabs and Muslims.

On the one hand, the Bush Administration has launched a number of initiatives designed to spread the message of U.S. concern for Arabs and Islam. On the other hand, the impact of several U.S. foreign and domestic policies drowns out the messages of the positive initiatives.

During the past month, for example, the United States launched a number of efforts to send the message of U.S. respect for Arabs and Islam. A $15 million television advertising campaign designed to demonstrate how well Muslims were doing in America, was complimented by a number of White House-sponsored Ramadan events. President Bush made an appearance at Washington D.C.’s Islamic Center and spoke glowingly about the Islamic faith. Additionally iftar events were held at the White House and State Department hosted by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

That was the good news. But bad news came last week when more than 700, mostly Iranian immigrants were arrested in Los Angeles after they voluntarily complied with a controversial Department of Justice (DOJ) regulation that they register at Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offices by December 10.

This registration requirement is part of a DOJ program which has the declared intent of fingerprinting, photographing and recording the whereabouts of all non-immigrant foreigners coming into or already in the United States. To date, however, this regulation has only been applied to immigrants from 20 countries. Of this group, 15 of the countries are Arab (Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen)

Four are non-Arab, largely Muslim countries (Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan) and North Korea.

Arab Americans and immigrant rights organizations protested the program on several grounds. Firstly, they argued that the program was targeting Arabs and Muslims. This fact was highlighted last week when Armenians, who had initially been listed among the immigrants required to register, were dropped from the registration list after protests were made by several Armenian organizations. Similar protests by Arab Americans and Muslim American organizations were ignored.

Other objections to the registration program included: concern that the DOJ had done little to publicize the requirement causing fear that the deadline would pass with many non-resident immigrants unaware that they had failed to report, making them subject to deportation; the limited time frame provided for the targeted individuals to report and register; the lack of uniformity in how INS offices around the United States were handling the registration process; and finally, the concern that the entire effort, since it had been announced as part of the effort to stop terrorism, ran the risk of potentially smearing an entire group of people as “suspects.”

The initial results of this ill-conceived effort were widely reported last week after the deadline passed for the initial group of required registrants (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria Sudan). In one jurisdiction alone, Los Angeles, it appears that at least 700 individuals who voluntarily showed up at INS offices to register were arrested and are being held for possible deportation. The tragic irony of this situation is that the detained individuals were, in fact, acting in compliance with the law. Lawyers, close to the situation, indicated that while some of the detained individuals were technically “out of status,” most had legal appeals for a reclassification of their immigrant status pending with the INS.

Could anyone believe that America is safer from terrorism because the INS has arrested hundreds of individuals, with legally filed pending immigration applications, who voluntarily appeared to be fingerprinted and photographed? And, equally to the point, what will all of this do to the U.S.’s charm offensive to communicate its tolerance and respect for Muslims and Arabs?

Does the right hand know what the left had is doing?

Also of concern in this regard was the announcement this week that the United States has decided not to make public the long-awaited “road-map” for a Middle East peace worked out by the so-called “Quartet” comprised of the U.S., United Nations, Russia and the European Union. This decision was reached over the objection of U.S. Middle East experts in the State Department and White House who felt that an early announcement was needed to show U.S. good faith to the Arab world and provide Israeli voters and Palestinian reformers with real hope and real choices for the future.

The apparent reason for the decision not to go forward with this announcement was so as not to influence the Israeli elections scheduled to be held on January 28. Since it is widely believed that Israel’s incumbent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon objects to many of the provisions of the “road-map” and, therefore, to its release, what does U.S. concurrence with Sharon’s objections say to Israelis, Palestinians and the broader Arab world about the U.S. commitment to a comprehensive Middle East peace?

And since January 27 is the deadline for the UN inspections team to announce its preliminary findings, and, therefore, for the U.S. to declare its acceptance or rejection of this report, will the U.S. now greet the end of January with an announcement of both the “roadmap” and a war against Iraq? And what will this do to U.S. self-declared efforts to build a broad coalition to confront Iraq? Do the pieces fit? Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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