By noon last Friday at the INS building on Front Street, the number of people from Muslim and Arab countries who showed up to register (six or so) was outnumbered by the dozen protestors there to make sure they were treated fairly. Dwarfing both groups was the media, which numbered 18, including technicians and cameramen from two local news stations who spent more time chit-chatting with one another than anything else-understandable given that they'd quickly exhausted the few quotable sources available to interview.
Compared to last month's protests against the INS for detaining dozens of immigrants who showed up in San Diego to register on Dec. 16, Friday's turnout was relatively small and quiet.
That, however, didn't matter to the McLeod family. They said they'd be there no matter what the popularity of the cause. To them, it was about keeping the government in check.
“I can't think of anything scarier or more horrible,” said 30-something daughter Heather McLeod, “than showing up for a government appointment and being taken somewhere else and held in detention where you can't contact your family-or having that happen to your brother or your father. That's not the kind of country I was raised to believe that this country is. That was what the bad guys did.”
“I'm out here today because people are not being treated fairly in the United States,” said family patriarch Charlie Ellis-McLeod. “They have no right to detain and take people away like they were last month.”
Ellis-McLeod, looking in his 60s, carried a sign that read, “What's Next? A Yellow Star?”
Last Friday, Jan. 10, was the second INS registration deadline for immigrants from countries the Bush administration believes breed anti-American terrorists. The registrations are required under the USA Patriot Act passed in October of 2001 and are seen by many as just another part of the hard-line direction the country has taken under Attorney General John Ashcroft. Friday's deadline applied to some 7,000 males nationwide from 13 countries.
After the first deadline, Dec. 16, when male immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria were required to register, San Diego became an epicenter of a national controversy when a number of the immigrants who showed up were taken into custody because they were deemed by the INS to be in the U.S. illegally-for reasons such as overstaying their visas. However, many of the detainees had filed papers to legalize themselves, but the INS had not been able to process them fast enough.
A few were held past Christmas. “People were detained and kept from talking to their families,” Ellis-McLeod said, “simply because [the INS was] understaffed.”
Given that only one person was detained on Jan. 10, apparently they'd changed their policies, McLeod said. “But,” he added “we wonder if they'd have done it if we weren't out here protesting.”
On Dec. 17, a crowd estimated at about 500 protested the previous day's detainments. And while the INS admitted some mistakes were made during the first round of special registration, it refused to publicly apologize for the policy itself. An INS spokesperson declined to talk to CityBeat on Friday.
The Jan. 10 deadline targeted “group two,” that is, male citizens or nationals of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Elysa Ellis-McLeod, Charlie's wife, said she felt a personal duty to protest the registrations.
“I'm here to protest the discriminatory practices of the INS,” she said. “and to support our Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters who've unfairly been targeted because of their ethnic or national origins.”
She said that the INS argument that it's making our country safer by enforcing immigration laws didn't hold water with her.
“It doesn't make me feel safer when we discriminate, it makes me feel like we're making more enemies,” she said. “I don't think it's a practice that will effectively result in anyone's safety. It can only make things worse when we don't treat people equally. Timothy McVeigh was a dangerous terrorist and he was a white man born in this country. And yet, there are no special registrations for white men born in this country, are there?”
Neither did Ellis-McLeod appreciate the federal government's argument that Arab and Muslim countries are the breeding ground for terrorists.
“I have a friend whose cat is really nasty, so should I incarcerate all cats because of that?” she said, chuckling a bit at the analogy. “Arab men are good. Targeting a whole group when a few people do something is not good thinking, in addition to discrimination.”