Members of the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles are accusing the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service of mistreatment during a federally mandated registration of certain groups of immigrants.
"We know of some Iranian-born Jews who are being held under subhuman conditions, even worse than those found in third-world countries," said Sam Kermanian, the usually low-key secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.
The Persian Jews, together with a larger number of Muslims from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria, were detained during a national registration process of those in this country on temporary visas or not in possession of green card work permits. The registration ended Monday and affected only men.
Thousands of Iranians -- Jews and non-Jews alike -- protested INS tactics on Wednesday, Dec. 18, outside the Federal Building in Westwood.
According to some within the Persian Jewish community, about 10-12 men have been detained or arrested, although attorney Beck Saffary said he was trying to raise bail, at $1,500 per person, for 35 Persian Jews.
Apparently, eight of the detainees emigrated from Iran to Israel and then on to the United States, and many carry Israeli citizenship status. Zvi Vapni, the Israeli deputy consul-general in Los Angeles, said that he had received complaints of "very hard conditions," perhaps due to overcrowding, and had conveyed the consulate's concern to the INS.
Bita Yaghoubian said that her uncle, a 45-year-old businessman with a wife and two children, had reported to the downtown Federal Building because he had not yet completed the process to obtain a green card.
"He was arrested like a criminal," Yaghoubian said of her uncle, whom she did not identify by name. "They taped his wrists and ankles, put him in a room with the air conditioning way up, with no blankets or mattress."
Yaghoubian also reported terrible sanitary conditions and very little food, which her uncle, an observant Jew who keeps kosher, had to decline. She said her family put up the $1,500 bail on Monday, but her uncle was still being held by Wednesday.
Kermanian confirmed her description of the conditions. "I understand the need for vigilance, but they are jailing some people because they overstayed their visa for a few days maybe 20 years ago. That's not justified."
Adding to the concern was the possibility that if any of the Jewish detainees are deported, they might be returned to their native Iran.
Jorge Martinez, Department of Justice spokesman in Washington, D.C., heatedly denied the mistreatment charges.
Martinez, who deals with immigration affairs, termed the charges "preposterous" and said they were not backed by any evidence. Martinez said that the law mandated the detention of persons illegally in this country.
With some 10,000 men required to register nationwide, Martinez said that some of the detention rooms "may have been a little crowded," but that any incidents "have been blown way out of proportion." He added that across the country, complaints had been received only from Los Angeles and Boston.
Speaking from his Washington office, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said, "The INS has really messed up. They are using a sledgehammer approach and jeopardizing the goal of tracking visa holders."
Waxman said he had vigorously protested to the INS, but had not yet received any responses.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles also expressed its concern.
There are some 30,000 Persian Jews and more than 500,000 Iranian Muslims in Southern California.
A traffic-stopping protest overwhelmed Westwood Wednesday afternoon. Police estimated that some 2,000 protesters attended the rally, although the National Lawyers Guild, an organization that monitors demonstrations and helps ensure that demonstrators get their legal rights, assessed the number closer to 5,000.
A Farsi-language radio station organized the protest. Mainstream Iranian Jewish organizations did not participate, but a relatively unknown group, Persian Jews United, joined the protest, where signs read, "What's next, concentration camps?"
Aaron Amin, a 23-year-old Jewish USC law school student from Beverly Hills, came to protest the detention of some of his friends, who are in holding cells at the INS. "I'm not a fan of Iran at all because of the regime," said Amin, who was born in America to Persian Jewish parents. Amin said he was discomfited by the fact that Jews and Muslims were protesting together. But, he said, "this wasn't religious based. They took Jews and Muslim, Bahá'í -- anyone."
Jews were only a small percentage of the protesters in Westwood. Many did not have personal connections, but came on principle. "Our brothers, our husbands, our sons, walked themselves to the INS at their request," said Homa Mahdavi, a Muslim Iranian. "All these people are legal here, but their detention is not legal. We came here to live in a free land, to be in a land without this," she said. "Iranian people -- fortunately or unfortunately -- are in love with the United States."
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