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Tuesday, September 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Immigrants still languish in INS jail

Seattle Times staff reporter

For nearly one year, Elyes Glaissia, a Tunisian citizen, has sat in a Seattle INS jail.

What put him there Sept. 16 were the disputed claims of a roommate that he was "an extremist" Muslim plotting terrorism.

What has kept him there, even after his roommate recanted, is an expired tourist visa and more stringent immigration rules.

Glaissia's case, one of thousands coursing through the U.S. immigration system, illustrates a delicate balance between national security and civil liberties since Sept. 11.

In its war against terrorism, the government has clamped down on foreigners with:

• An "absconder initiative" to find, detain and expel 314,000 foreign nationals who have failed to comply with deportation orders. The initiative led to the detention of a Syrian family living in Edmonds.

• Authority to hold individuals for a "reasonable" length of time without charges.

• Authority for immigration judges to close certain deportation proceedings from the public.

• The questioning of 8,000 men who had immigrated within the past two years from the Middle East and South Asia.

• The requirement that some 100,000 visitors a year — those from certain countries, mostly in the Middle East — be fingerprinted, photographed and report their movements.

• And beginning in January, the tracking of all foreign students at U.S. colleges, universities and vocational school.

Such measures, some argue, are prudent in a time when the world has forever changed.

"Given the U.S. is still at war, holding a few dozen people in custody seems pretty mild," says Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., a nonprofit group that favors limiting immigration.

"Fingerprinting and photographing some aliens is not a big deal. Tracking foreign students is perfectly appropriate — you're a guest in someone's country," Camarota said.

Indeed, the Justice Department has kept secret the names of 1,200 people held after Sept. 11, an act warranted, officials maintain, not only to protect details of an ongoing terrorism investigation but the privacy of those who have been detained.

Last month, in a scathing decision against the government, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler of Washington, D.C., ordered the names released. Kessler later indefinitely stayed her decision while the case is being appealed.

Numerous national organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say such measures show an unnecessarily and overzealous government.

"This cycle of terrorist attack followed by government curtailment of civil liberties must be broken — or our society will eventually lose the key attribute that has made it great: freedom," wrote Timothy Lynch, the director of the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice.

The ACLU, in a recent report, added: Attorney General John Ashcroft "has been all too willing to use immigration law as a pretext to target particular communities."

In local immigration circles, the case of the Syrian family, underscores the heightened efforts to secure the nation.

Safouh Hamoui and wife Hanan Ismail arrived here on short-term tourist visas in 1992, settling in Lynnwood and later running a Edmonds grocery. Hamoui, a former pilot with the Syrian Army, has said in court documents he fled Syria fearing for his life. He filed for political asylum, but the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service ordered Safouh Hamoui of Lynnwood and his family to report to its Seattle office on Aug. 29, 2000, for deportation to Syria.

The family's Seattle attorney, Bernice Funk, has argued the Hamouis had been represented by ineffective counsel who never made them fully aware of the deportation orders. So for years, Funk says, the family lived ordinary lives.

On Feb. 22, as part of the Absconder Initiative, Immigration and Naturalization Service agents took Hamoui, his wife and their daughter into custody, where they have remained. Despite community rallies urging their release, INS authorities maintain the Hamouis are a flight risk.

The family is appealing to the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals.

In the case of Glaissia, the Tunisian man living in Tacoma, his story began in secret, one of numerous "special interest" cases designated by the government days after the terrorist attacks.

Such cases, outlined in an Attorney General memo, were assigned to immigration judges who had secret clearances. The cases could only be heard in closed courtrooms and were never even listed on court dockets.

Immigration-court officials in Seattle would not talk about the Glaissia case.

Tacoma police notified federal authorities after a roommate claimed Glaissia, a Tacoma gas station worker, made terrorist threats. The FBI questioned him, and because his six-month tourist visa had expired in 2000, he was turned over to the INS, where he has remained jailed since Sept. 16.

Glaissia, a Muslim, is seeking political asylum. His Seattle attorney, Vicky Dobrin, said it's not clear why his case was even classified as "special interest."

The classification prejudiced the immigration court, according to Dobrin. Glaissia was denied bail, political asylum and a deportation stay, and the classification has negatively influenced his case throughout the appeals process.

Through his wife, Merriem, Glaissia says he believes the truth will come out and Allah will let justice prevail.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published September 10, was corrected September 14. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service ordered Safouh Hamoui of Lynnwood and his family to report to its Seattle office on Aug. 29, 2000, for deportation to Syria. A previous version of this story wrongly reported that an immigration judge had ordered the family deported.

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