INS Excess?

Immigrant advocates are worried about a pilot program that police in the Sunshine State will be trying out for the next year.

Is Florida a hotbed of terrorist activity? In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, much was made of the fact that 14 of the 19 hijackers, including purported ringleader Mohammed Atta, lived for a time in Florida, and almost as many possessed Florida driver’s licenses.

Though nobody in government is saying so, perhaps that's why Florida is poised to become the first state to. Members of Florida's Domestic Security Task Force — seven Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents and 28 officers assigned by local departments — soon begin six weeks of training with real INS agents.

Should undocumented immigrants in the state, estimated to be more than 700,000 by the Urban Institute, worry that their illegal status could see them incarcerated, deported or both?

Tampa-based FDLE spokesman Rick Morera says no.

"These 35 officers are going to be focused on terrorism, or terrorism-related activities where they can use their INS training," said Morera.

Public opposition has come most strongly from the Latino farm worker community. But FDLE head Tim Moore insists that this task force will not be checking green cards or work camps.

Immigrant community leaders say for the most part they're taking a wait-and-see attitude.

The agreement between Washington and Tallahassee is a one-year pilot program that will use the 35 officers working out of five offices, a far cry from deputizing all local law enforcement officers with INS-like powers.

That proposal is being hotly debated by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and his aides as another terrorism-fighting tool. If Ashcroft were to go ahead, he would have U.S. law behind him.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 contained a section that gave the AG authority to enter into agreements with local police agencies to enforce immigration laws.

But any attempts to enforce this regulation before Sept. 11 were shot down by immigrant advocates, employers or, in the case of Salt Lake City in 1998, local politicians.

The National Council of La Raza, which fights discrimination against Hispanic Americans, urged President George W. Bush in April to oppose the effort to extend authority of state and local enforcement to immigration law. The group cited a 1997 situation in Chandler, Ariz., where individuals were stopped repeatedly "for no other reason than their skin color or Mexican appearance or use of the Spanish language."

Council President Raul Yzaguirre wrote that individuals "were stopped or questioned just outside of business and schools; police patrolling on bicycles harassed and detained Hispanic-looking individuals who were in their cars, walking on the street and sitting in their homes."

When the proposal for state officers to get INS powers was first floated, Latino groups were the loudest in protesting this exchange of power.

In Naples in late January, 1,000 protesters confronted Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter after it was reported that he had asked the federal government to enter a pilot program with his office, which would give deputies access to names of undocumented immigrants. Hunter said that he wanted the intelligence to help in antiterrorism efforts, noting that Atta was stopped on a traffic infraction but not detained because the officer had no way of knowing Atta's visa had expired.

But FDLE officials' consistent mantra to Latinos has been: We're NOT going after you.

If this proposal is to fight terrorism and not go after Latinos (the state's largest group of undocumented immigrants) — and the Sept. 11 terrorists were of Arab descent and Muslim beliefs — perhaps it's not a stretch to think that men fitting that description might be more vulnerable to police checks.

Hussein Ibish of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League dismisses the FDLE claims that these new regulations are for fighting terrorism, and not a tool to racially profile Arabs.

"They have to say that, so that's the end of the discussion," he said. "The question you have to ask is: Will this make us safer? Probably not."

On a scale of profiling Arabs, the proposal isn't as blatantly specific as the new federal regulations that will require tens of thousands of Muslim and Middle Eastern visa holders to register with the government and be fingerprinted.

Perhaps this is the point to note a salient fact: All of the 19 hijackers entered the country legally on temporary, B-1 business or B-2 tourist visas. Fourteen of them were in legal status on the morning of 9/11. Three of them were on a watch list for terrorists.

The FDLE's Morera says it's impossible to say if his department had these types of powers last year at this time if it could have made any difference, but "it couldn't have hurt us".

Others aren't so sure.

Angela Kelley, deputy director for programs at the National Immigration Forum, calls Florida's plans to fight terrorism overkill. "This is like using a meat ax for what you could do with a scalpel," she said. "You're using such a wide net to try to fight terrorism. What we really need to do is find a way where the INS and local law enforcement can share information to know what's going on with the community."

But all of these critics of the Florida plan concede that there is substantial need for immigration reform.

National Council of La Raza's Michele Waslin says the recent Border Security Act is such a move by Congress that will positively concentrate on the real threats. "The FBI, CIA and INS will now all share information with each other," said Waslin. "That's the way to go."

But Waslin says that Sept. 11 has opened the floodgates for a lot of bad legislation to be foisted upon the American public. "Unfortunately, people have linked terrorism to immigration, which is really unfortunate," said Waslin.

Another factor that Florida officials seemed to focus on in reviewing the path of the hijackers inside the state is that 13 of them had lawfully acquired driver's licenses.

Because of that, Gov. Jeb Bush signed an executive order in December that allowed state officials to require non-citizens to appear in person at least once to present proof of their legal presence in the U.S.

The rules also said that licenses should expire when immigration documents expired. Foreigners were then issued 30-day permits when their immigration documents expired.

"Department of Motor Vehicle workers don't have the training, knowledge or authority to implement immigration law, which is quite complex," said Waslin.

Workers at the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles proved that. The Bush directive reportedly led to big inconveniences for foreign nationals, who often were told once they went to renew their licenses that they had to go to another office, and sometimes a third office because of incomplete information from state officials.

Immigrant advocates also said that state workers, unable to identify valid immigration documents, were refusing licenses to legitimate applicants. It also led to many immigrants losing their right to drive.

In March, nearly 600 Latino immigrants gathered in Clearwater to discuss the harassment they were getting regarding driver's licenses. At an immigrants' rights rally in downtown Tampa on May 18, Odilom Mezquite, who works as a caretaker at a golf course, said he and many of his friends were growing weary of it all.

"We come from another country ... we're workers ... we're not terrorists ... we just want our rights," he said. "Don't discriminate against us."

Fernando Cuevos, an organizer for the Central/North Florida Carpenters Regional Council, is not placated by the FDLE's admonitions that they're not coming after Latinos. "We have the foreign names, regardless whether you were born and raised here," said the Texas-born Cuevos, who is an American citizen. "As long as you're brown skinned ... they're using this as an excuse to go after Latinos."

Hussein Ibish fears for the Arab community. "There is clearly a potential for abuse," he said "When the government gets these types of powers, it doesn't restrain itself."

Contact WMNF-88.5 FM Assistant News Director Mitch E. Perry at [email protected].