By JOHN IWASAKI
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Mar. 26 - Some Iraqi immigrants in Washington, already anxious because of the war in their native land, say unannounced home visits by federal agents are further elevating stress levels and causing distrust of the government.
One Iraqi woman was home alone when agents came to interview her. She "thought they were going to arrest her husband," said Yahya Al-Garib, community advocate for the Iraqi Community Center in West Seattle. "They feel like they're in Iraq right now."
An immigration-rights group is working to provide legal assistance to the jittery immigrants, who are being interviewed this week in a nationwide effort to counter terrorism, curb hate crimes and track down illegal immigrants.
The voluntary interviews of 150 to 200 Iraqis statewide are being conducted by the FBI. The newly established Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security, also recently announced it would question an undisclosed number of Iraqis. More than 1,000 Iraqis live in Washington state.
The immigrants generally aren't opposed to the FBI interviews, which include instructions on responding to hate crimes, but wonder why they started just days after the war in Iraq.
"People are tired and depressed. They're worried about their families, crying, not sleeping," said Al-Garib. "They sleep for 30 minutes, and then they get a loud knock on the door and wake up again."
Because the agents come unannounced in the daytime, husbands usually aren't home, leaving agents to question frightened wives who may have limited English skills and misunderstand questions, he said.
Agents are asking immigrants if they know any terrorist groups, anyone who supports terrorists or anyone who works for Saddam Hussein, said Al-Garib, who met with 60 worried Iraqis last weekend.
Al-Garib expressed his concerns last week in a meeting with Charles Mandigo, special agent in charge of the Seattle FBI office, U.S. Attorney John McKay and Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske.
FBI spokeswoman Robbie Burroughs said the timing of the interviews is specifically because of the war in Iraq.
"It's a prudent move to reach out to people (from) a part of the world who have insight in what's going on there," she said. "It's not intended to cause anxiety. In most cases, it's done in a very friendly way."
Some people being interviewed have not expressed any concern or anxiety, Burroughs said.
The Seattle FBI office has orders to complete the interviews this week.
Agents are given the discretion of making appointments or just showing up, Burroughs said.
Subjects "certainly have the option of saying, 'Please come back tomorrow,' 'I'd like to have my attorney present,' 'I'd like to have a translator present,' " she said. "Or they can say they do not want to be interviewed. We're not going to be heavy-handed at all."
Pramila Jayapal, director of the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington, an immigration-rights watchdog group, said she attended last week's meeting with Mandigo and requested that the FBI provide a list of people to be interviewed, so her group could make sure they had translators and attorneys.
Jayapal said Mandigo agreed to provide a list of 10 to 15 people. Burroughs said the list was sent to Jayapal yesterday.
While Jayapal credited Mandigo for saying the interviews are voluntary and that subjects may have an attorney present, she doesn't believe the word is getting through to the agents, based on reports from local Iraqis.
Jayapal has arranged for Iraqis to be represented by federal public defenders, along with about 20 private immigration attorneys who have agreed to work pro bono. Iraqis wanting legal assistance may call Al-Garib's office at 206-937-7680, Ext. 217, or Jayapal's office at 206-723-2203 or 866-439-6631.
"We're not suggesting the attorneys need to be present because (the subjects) are guilty," but because it protects them from misunderstandings, Jayapal said.
The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced last week that it and the FBI would begin "seeking out specific Iraqi nationals unlawfully in the United States and apprehending them."
Bureau spokeswoman Karen Kraushaar said she could not comment specifically on the findings of the ongoing investigation, but said the agency is making sure "people are who they say they are, and are doing what they were admitted into this country to do."
While the agency is particularly interested in targeting illegal immigrants, they are not the only ones being interviewed, she said.
I guess my question is, if they are concerned about 'links to terrorist groups' why are they focusing on just Iraqi immigrants????