Some Arab groups criticize Ashcroft's offer of citizenship for information as akin to bribery

Friday, November 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Some immigrants and Arab groups criticized the Justice Department's new method for tracking down terrorists, saying its offer to put foreigners on a fast track to U.S. citizenship in exchange for useful terrorism information sets a troubling precedent.

``It's bribery and it's disgusting,'' said Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Philadelphia Arab-American Community Development Corp.

``It's what I would think some authoritarian government in the Middle East would do,'' he said.

The Justice Department's ``responsible cooperators program,'' announced Thursday, would defer deportation indefinitely for foreigners with visa problems and would allow outsiders to enter the country and apply for citizenship. But to qualify, they would have to provide ``reliable and useful'' information to track down terrorists or avert an attack.

The approach is a turnaround from the hard line the department has taken against immigration violators since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

More than 600 men from Arab and Muslim countries are in custody for immigration violations and other non-terrorism allegations, and authorities want to question 5,000 other Middle Eastern men in connection with the investigation.

``Noncitizens are often ideally situated to observe the early stages of terrorist activity,'' Attorney General John Ashcroft said. ``They may rest assured that the United States welcomes any reliable and useful information that they can provide. In return, we will help them make America their home.''

But Kreidie and others said taking advantage of people's desire to become U.S. citizens would only lead to more work for investigators.

``People may make up stuff just to get in,'' Kreidie said. ``They come from countries where people don't talk to the government and when you do, you say whatever you have to get out'' of whatever situation you are in.

Brenda Abdelall, 20, president of the Arab Student Association at the University of Michigan, said students there on visas worry that if they do come forward, officials could use old violations, like speeding tickets, against them.

``It sounds like bribery, like `hey, give me information, I'll give you your visa,''' she said.

In other developments in investigations related to the terrorist attacks:

_A federal magistrate in Alexandria, Va., ordered Agus Budiman, 31, held without bail on grounds that prosecutors had shown he had close ties to four of the Sept. 11 hijackers, including suspected ringleader Mohammed Atta.

_A man named on a Justice Department list of 104 people charged with federal crimes in the terror investigation was in custody in Denver. Arsalan Absar Rizvi, 26, posted $10,000 bond in a state domestic violence case, but was being held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

_Ashcroft said one of the FBI's 10 most wanted fugitives, escaped convict Clayton Lee Waagner, is behind a string of anthrax hoax letters sent to abortion clinics.

Ashcroft asked Americans to be on the lookout for Waagner, but he mainly focused on the citizenship-for-information program.

Fadi Kiblawi, 20, of Ann Arbor, Mich., said Aschroft's offer is just another part of a system ``for immigrants that's basically discriminatory.''

The U.S. government would criticize other foreign governments that would undertake such a program, said Yusef Abucar, co-founder of the Somali Community Association in Columbus, Ohio, which works with more than 15,000 people.

Abucar said Ashcroft comes across as arrogant. ``That does not inspire faith and trust from people who are already under suspicion for just being the (ethnicity) that they are,'' he said.

However, Carl Rusnok, an Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman, said: ``The bottom line is the attorney general is extremely concerned, as we all are, about finding the terrorists that are going to do another World Trade Center or a bombing.''

A similar immigration program was started after the 1993 World Trade Center attack and still offers foreigners a special visa if they provide critical information about criminal activities or terrorists. The ``S'' visas have been nicknamed ``snitch visas.''

``Anybody that is going to obtain citizenship based on other people's bad behavior _ I think that's wrong,'' said Tove Lindeman, a 61-year-old immigrant from Norway who now helps others obtain citizenship through her offices in McAllen, Texas.

In Cleveland, Pyramid Restaurant owner Abdal Aburami, a Palestinian who became a U.S. citizen, said he isn't sure the new proposal will make much difference.

``I think that for the most part, if a person knows anybody with intention to hurt the country, why accept anything in return for that information?'' Aburami said.

Immigration attorney Michael S. Henry of Philadelphia said anyone who would need to use the new program likely wouldn't be the sort of immigrant the United States would want.

``I understand the motivation,'' Henry said, ``but this doesn't seem a very effective way of finding terrorists and keeping terrorists out of the country.''