SAN FRANCISCO--As editor of the San Jose-based Farsi monthly Pezhvak, Shahbaz Taheri says he strives to be a bridge between Iranian immigrants and American society. Now he fears he helped deliver some of his readers to jail.
When the Immigration and Naturalization Service sent Taheri information about the new registration requirements for men from 5 Muslim countries including Iran, Taheri dutifully published them in Pezhvak. "I wanted to inform our community so they do everything legally," he said. He remembers an Iranian American man coming to his office and asking if he should register. "Don't worry," Taheri told him, "everyone should go and do it."
Now, after news that hundreds of Iranian men were detained, handcuffed and shackled when they went to register, Taheri says angry callers ask, "Why are you cooperating with these agencies and getting fellow Iranians arrested?"
Recent polls have shown that millions of Americans use in-language, ethnic news media as a primary news source. In California, where ethnic minorities comprise a majority (53 percent, according to Census 2000) of the state's 35 million residents, ethnic media command larger audiences than mainstream media in some metropolitan areas. Now, with increasing government surveillance of immigrants -- and reports of civil rights violations resulting from such moves -- this new media finds itself in a quandary, caught between informing and protecting its audience.
"For the most part, people heard about the INS deadline from the media in their own communities," said Banafsheh Akhlaghi, a lawyer representing some of the detainees. "Some heard it second-hand, or third-hand via e-mail. Some even heard about it from their relatives in Iran."
Bijan, a 38-year-old Iranian man living in the San Francisco Bay Area, was told to go register by his mother in Iran. When he went to comply, he ended up handcuffed, shackled and sleeping on concrete slabs in a detention center in San Diego. "I didn't do anything wrong, I filled up every form," he said. "Now I just sit at home and don't want to go outside."
"This undermines the trust the government is trying to build," said Helal Omeria, executive director of the Northern California chapter of Council on American Islamic Relations. Omeira uses his e-mail lists to get the word out about the registration. "We do it in good faith," he says, but adds that when the end result is mass arrests of law-abiding immigrants, that faith is shaken.
Many in the ethnic media fault the INS for not starting earlier and trying harder to reach the communities that would be affected by the new rules.
Hossein Hedjazi of Radio Iran KIRN 670-AM in Los Angeles, said his station only learned about the new rules by word of mouth. When news of the arrests reached him, he broadcast a call for a peaceful demonstration that drew more than 12,000 people. "We could reach that many people in 24 hours," he says. "If the INS told us in advance what they were trying to do, we could have informed the people way ahead of time, and maybe (the INS) would not have been so overwhelmed."
Francisco Arcaute, spokesperson for the Los Angeles district office of the INS, says the agency did put the word out. "I myself went on Farsi television even though I speak no Farsi," he said. "We faxed the release to all media outlets and mosques and community centers in our database, and notified the consular offices of the affected countries."
Arcaute encourages all media who want to be on the database to contact the INS.
But Michael Bou Absi, editor of the Los Angeles-based Beirut Times, insisted the INS must do more outreach. Lebanon is on the second list of countries, whose registration deadline is Jan. 10, and Absi's staff is trying to run as much information as they can about the deadline. Absi remembers that after Sept. 11, 2001, the Department of Justice ran advertisements in papers like his explaining what people could do if they felt they were being harassed.
"That was very effective," said Absi. "But the INS does not realize if you just change the law in the background, no one will know about it."
Lawyers are worried that if the INS was overwhelmed dealing with immigrants from 5 countries, it is going to be completely swamped as the Jan. 10 deadline covering 13 countries approaches. The deadline for immigrants from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia follows shortly thereafter.
Already, confusion is rife in those communities. "I have heard of people who are saying that they have decided to just return to Pakistan instead of dealing with this," said Akhtar Faruqui, editor-in-chief of Southern California-based Pakistan Link. Faruqui's paper is running columns by immigration lawyers, and he is keeping his fingers crossed. "Senior officials have promised us there will be no harassment of Pakistanis and their registration will be made as easy as possible," he says.
Omeira of CAIR says editors like Faruqui should learn from December's arrests and detentions. "Once bitten twice shy. I would tell my readers that everyone should have an attorney. You have to warn people of the possible consequences and be prepared."
Sandip Roy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PNS editor and host of "Upfront" -- the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.
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