WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Pakistanis, who comprise the largest number of Muslim immigrants in the United States, began registering with the Immigration and Naturalization Service Monday in line with new regulations.
Large numbers turned up to register at Manhattan's Federal Building in New York. Elsewhere, lines were smaller, but were gradually increasing.
The INS said it expects 15,000 to 20,000 Pakistanis to register, but the Pakistan Embassy in Washington and advocacy groups expect the number to be higher.
One estimate says as many as 100,000 Pakistanis may be affected.
In the first phase, which ended Dec. 16, the INS registered visitors and temporary residents from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and North Korea, the five countries considered sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. State Department. The second phase of registration was completed Friday when people from 13, mainly Muslim, countries were registered.
More than 15,000 people, mostly Muslims, were registered, the INS says. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were added to the list Dec. 16 and citizens of those countries living in the United States will be interviewed during a third phase, from Jan. 13 to Feb. 21.
"We need to have a better understanding of who exits and enters our country, and these are people from countries that have been identified as possible national security concerns for the United States," said Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez.
Registration includes fingerprinting and questioning and has caused widespread confusion and anxiety in Muslim immigrant communities across the United States.
Fingerprints are matched against a database of known criminals and terrorists. The Attorney-General's office says that during a pilot project earlier this year, fingerprinting led to an average of more than 70 hits a week, resulting in the arrest of 2,000 wanted felons from January through July 2002. None was involved in terrorist-related activities.
INS officials say fingerprinting would also help them identify those immigrants who obtain U.S. nationality or green cards illegally.
The registration process has not been easy, however.
Lines at some INS centers have been so long, that applicants had to arrive before 5 a.m. to avoid being turned away. INS officials assigned hundreds of employees and extra computers to handle the increased workload.
Those called for registration say they are not against complying with the law.
"What we fear is that security concerns are being exploited to deport as many Muslims from American as possible," says Ghulam Mohammed, a shopkeeper in Virginia, who has also been asked to register.
Last Oct. 20, the U.S. Congress passed a bill titled the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, better known by its acronym, the USA Patriot Act of 2001.
The act mandated the Justice Department develop an entry-exit system to control immigration. The new system was first implemented as a trial from Sept. 11, 2002, to Sept. 30, 2002, and became operative from Oct. 1 last year.
U.S. authorities also began enforcing visa laws and arresting and deporting violators and deportation absconders. The INS was asked to delay the processing of work permits and new, stringent procedures were set up for student visas. Students will now be observed after they enter the United States to ensure they follow immigration laws.
Most of these restrictions were already in place after World War II, but were not always implemented.
Although officially Pakistanis were required to register from Monday, the process started earlier.
In late October 2002, the Justice Department sent a secret memo to INS officials informing them that Pakistan had been added to the list of countries whose citizens needed to be registered. Since then, Pakistanis aged between 16 and 45 are being registered at the port of entry.
So far, Pakistanis top the list of immigrants arrested and deported after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Pakistani rights groups say many of those deported were "victims of ignorance" who violated laws they were unaware of.