SEATTLE — Civil rights activists and immigrant advocates are urging Arabs and Muslims in Washington state not to answer federal agents’ questions unless presented with a subpoena or search warrant.
The warning came after the U.S. Justice Department’s announcement that it wants to interview 5,000 recent Middle Eastern immigrants as part of its probe into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"There is no law that requires you to answer questions," said Leah Iraheta, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a Seattle-based agency. "My advice is that if they don’t have a piece of paper that says they can talk to you, then to just say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t talk.’ And just shut the door."
It’s not know if interviews have begun in the Seattle area, but an FBI official told The Seattle Times that dozens if not hundreds of men may be contacted.
The American Civil Liberties Union has called the latest Justice Department effort a "dragnet." The ACLU has begun distributing a pamphlet nationwide written in seven languages, including Arabic, on what to do if stopped by law enforcement agents.
In a Nov. 9 memo to federal prosecutors, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the interviews would be completed within 30 days.
The 5,000 men on the list to be interviewed are between 18 and 33 years old and entered the United States sometime after Jan. 1, 2000, on student, business or tourist visas.
Justice Department officials have said the men that agents want to interview are in most cases Arabs or others from the Middle East.
The names come from lists maintained by the U.S. State Department, which tracks visa applications, said Bob Coleman, a local Immigration and Naturalization Service director.
It’s unlikely many interviews will be conducted in Washington state, where the Muslim population is less than 1 percent, Justice Department officials said.
"I’m guessing a few hundred and probably less," an unidentified senior FBI official told The Times.
"We realize that profiling is a dirty word," the official said. "And the intent is to be very sensitive. We’ll ask about their background and their status (in the U.S.) and inquire if they know anything that might help us."
The plan to question the 5,000 men is the latest government policy that has come under criticism since the passing of the USA-Patriot Act last month.
Arabs and Muslims in the Seattle area say they feel unfairly scrutinized, especially after a government raid on a Somalian money-wiring service earlier this month.
Irwin Schwartz, a Seattle lawyer and president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said it’s important to make sure people don’t feel singled out because of their race or ethnicity.
"The attorney general has said these interviews will be voluntary, and I hope they are, in fact, voluntary," Schwartz said.
Gov. Gary Locke said he sees no harm in turning to Middle Easterners for help in the terrorism investigation, as long as the interviews are voluntary.
"People might know someone who might know someone" who has information about terrorist groups that could prevent future attacks, Locke said Wednesday.
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