Missed INS registration means jail
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Two deadlines loomed for Abdullah Hatahet.
One was a class project to get his diploma from the University of South Florida.
The other was to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Hatahet pulled an all-nighter on Dec. 16 to meet the first deadline. The second, he figured, could wait.
"I was going to go (to INS) the day of registration, but I was exhausted," Hatahet said Monday. "So I was going to go the next day."
The next day he was in jail -- stripped of his jeans, car keys and the silver ring given to him at the previous Saturday's graduation ceremony. In fact, Hatahet spent the next three days in jail and now faces the possibility of being deported.
"I didn't know how serious this was until I was detained," said the 22-year-old Hatahet, a Syrian native who grew up in Saudi Arabia.
Free on bail, Hatahet goes to a hearing today in Bradenton, where an immigration judge could dismiss the case or give Hatahet a few weeks to pack his things and leave the country, according to immigration attorneys.
Hatahet is one of hundreds of Middle Eastern or North African men around the country to be locked up in the past month after they voluntarily showed up at immigration offices to give fingerprints and answer questions.
The new INS registration and fingerprinting requirements affect males over 16 years of age who are here on temporary visas from the countries of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria or Libya -- many of them students and businessmen. They had until Dec. 16 to register in person with the INS. Those who failed to do so are subject to arrest, fines and deportation.
A new deadline passed Friday for men from a second group of countries -- Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The final deadline falls on Feb. 21 for men from Saudia Arabia and Pakistan.
Jorge Martinez, spokesman for the Justice Department, said Monday a total of about 650 men had been temporarily detained for visa violations. Nationwide, 54 men remain in custody, wanted on criminal offenses or serious immigration violations, he said.
He could not give detention numbers for the Tampa area.
But Hatahet became one of them by showing up to register just one day late. That nullified his legal status. His INS papers say he was here on a student visa good through May 31, 2003, to study electrical engineering at USF in Tampa.
Hatahet said he also has been accepted into the USF master's degree program, which would allow him to extend his visa. After a graduate degree, he would return to Saudi Arabia to be near his parents and pursue a job in the wireless phone industry.
The past four years he's lived with an aunt and uncle in Tampa.
"It would open doors for me," he said of a higher education.
Hatahet said he didn't even know about the registration requirement until a week before the deadline. That's when he opened one of two USF e-mail accounts to see the school's notice sent out after INS's announcement in November about the Dec. 16 deadline.
But he thought only of the 50-page reports and final exams ahead of him. He finished his last project at 3 p.m. Monday, Dec. 16. The next day he went to the INS, but officers didn't want to hear his excuses, he said. They moved him to the Hillsborough County Jail on Orient Road.
The next day he was transferred to the immigration detention center in Bradenton.
"What did I do?" he thought to himself. "I'm not a criminal. Why are they treating me like this?"
To calm himself, he prayed five times a day, kneeling on a concrete floor. He followed the path of the sun through window grates to find the northeast. His Muslim faith requires him to face the northeast when praying.
"I found a corner and then just prayed there," he said. On Friday, Dec. 20, officials granted him a $2,000 bond, which his relatives paid.
Hatahet's current attorney, John Ovink, calls the registration requirement "utterly discriminatory" and a waste of resources.
"If I'm a terrorist, I am not going to come in to register," Ovink said.
Martinez, of the Justice Department, said he could not address Hatahet's case specifically.
Regarding the registration requirements in general, Martinez said they fell under "national security" priorities given that the target countries are those where terrorist cells are known to be active and recruiting new members.
Hatahet said he understands the concern but thinks the registration methods could be better and that students could be given better warning.
David Austell, director of the International Student and Scholar Services at USF, said the department e-mailed notices and called students. It also posted information on its Web site and in its offices.
The school has about 100 to 150 students affected by all three deadlines, he said.
"I'm really sorry this happened to him," he said. "He's an excellent young man."
Muhammad Sultan, director and imam at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area, said an immigration attorney has been invited to speak there later this week. Many of the men are nervous and don't know whether to register for fear of being deported.
Hatahet tries to be positive, no matter what the judge decides.
"At least I've had four years to study here," he said.
And for those about to face the next deadline? "Just register on time," he said.
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