New law may make U.S. land of the detainee

NEW YORK — "To lock them up when they come to the land of the free, seeking freedom, is a cruel irony."

Gideon Aronoff, the Washington representative for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was expressing concern about the tough new American anti-terror law that would indefinitely detain people fleeing countries where the al-Qaida terrorist network is active.

While supporting the need to protect America from terrorism, HIAS said the new law casts too wide a net that could ensnare innocent people, including Jews from Iran and the former Soviet Union.

The law, enacted under the Homeland Security Department's Operation Liberty Shield and which went into effect March 18, is targeted at potential terrorists from 34 nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere.

It allows the indefinite detention of those who arrive in the United States requesting political asylum but lack proper immigration or refugee documentation or carry forged papers.

It would not affect people who have qualified for the legal status of refugee before arriving on U.S. shores because they are fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution based on political, religious, ethnic or national ties.

Most Jewish immigrants from suspect nations in recent years came as legal refugees.

Foreigners already in the United States who request political asylum also would not be affected.

The law immediately sparked a sharp rebuke by HIAS, the nation's oldest immigrant aid group.

The new law would imprison people who have been victims of "torture, rape and other extreme persecution" without the opportunity to seek parole or review of their case, HIAS President Leonard Glickman wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge last week.

Such measures contrast with previous policy, which allowed asylum seekers who are detained to explain their individual cases when applying for parole.

"It's a dangerous time, and a new policy is clearly required, but every new policy must be given careful review to ensure it makes America safer and doesn't do undue damage to the fundamental values of our country and community," Aronoff said.

It remains unclear how many Jews might show up in the United States seeking asylum with improper documentation from nations linked to al-Qaida, HIAS officials said.

HIAS said it has helped resettle 378,374 legal refugees fleeing persecution between 1980 and September 2002. That included 13,060 Iranian Jews and 339,607 people from the former Soviet Union, most of whom were Jewish.

Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, now under the Homeland Security Department, said the United States remains a haven for those fleeing persecution.

"Asylum hasn't changed — that's our nation's heritage, to provide safe refuge for people," Strassberger said.

"At the same time, we're at war, and we do have an obligation to protect the American people," he said.

Acknowledging that those who arrive from certain lands seeking political asylum without proper documents would be detained, Strassberger said it must be asked: "Is it someone just trying to take advantage of the asylum system, or is it someone just trying to get into the United States to do some harm?"

But HIAS officials said those who hope to escape persecution from nations such as Iraq lack any mechanism to seek official refugee status before arriving here because their homelands lack diplomatic ties with the United States.