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Registration stirs fears of Queens Pakistanis

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For the last two months, Mohammed, a 46-year-old Pakistani immigrant who lives in Jamaica, has been agonizing about his child and his expired visa.

Mohammed's 15-year-old son has been sick for years and is in need of brain surgery. But since the Dec. 18 announcement that Pakistani immigrants must register with the Immigration and Naturalization Services, Mohammed has had other things on his mind. Mohammed believes he will be detained if he shows up to register by the March 21 deadline, and he worries that his wife cannot take care of his son alone.

"If I go to a detention center and they detain me just for one day, we cannot afford that," Mohammed told the TimesLedger at the Islamic Circle of North America's Jamaica headquarters. "I fear my son will die, and my wife cannot help him if I am not here."

Rather than register with the INS, Mohammed said he is determined to return to Pakistan with his family, most likely before his son receives his operation. His son's health, he said, is in God's hands.

Mohammed's choice to flee rather than risk detainment is indicative of a widespread fear among Pakistani immigrants in Queens, according to advocates for those immigrants.

"They're really, really intimidated," said Adem Carroll, relief coordinator for the Islamic Circle at 166-26 89th Ave. "I haven't seen it this bad before."

The panic in the Pakistani immigrant community, which immigrant advocates say has caused many to return to their homeland, stems from the U.S. government's changing position toward immigrants following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

The INS has developed a policy of special registration for male immigrants 16 or older who were in the country before October. The rule does not apply to immigrants who have become American citizens, those who have a green card, those who have been granted political asylum or are refugees.

Although most immigrants in the country are from Latin American countries, 24 of the 25 nations on the registration list are Muslim nations, with North Korea the lone exception.

Immigrants from Afghanistan to Iraq are among the groups that have already registered in the first two stages of the program. On Friday, INS officials announced they were pushing back the third registration deadline, for immigrants from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, from Feb. 21 to March 21. Immigrants from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait are included in the fourth registration phase, which extends from Feb. 24 to April 25.

In order to register, immigrants must travel to their local INS office to answer questions ranging from where they live to where they pray. The questions are more in-depth than those asked when applying for a visa, Carroll said.

The goal of the program is to boost national security by keeping closer tabs on immigrant communities. The federal mandate has hit Pakistanis, one of the larger Muslim immigrant communities in Queens, particularly hard, Carroll said.

The Pakistani community is largest in Jamaica and Flushing, but exists in neighborhoods throughout the borough.

Immigrant advocates have argued that the registration has not helped the war on terror but resulted in the deportation of immigrants with paperwork problems and widespread fear among American Muslim immigrants.

The Islamic Circle of North America offers these distraught immigrants counseling, referrals to attorneys and financial support. Carroll said in the last month his group has gotten 75 calls a day, most of them from scared Pakistani men.

"You listen to most of their stories, and you think most of these people should be allowed to stay," Carroll said.

Mohammed has one of the sadder stories, Carroll said. A farmer of tobacco and sugar cane, Mohammed came to the country in May 2000 for the sole reason of finding better care for his son.

Mohammed extended his six-month visa once. But the second time, the attorney he hired never filed the correct papers and was eventually arrested for ripping off immigrants, Mohammed said.

Mohammed had hoped to pay for his son's operation before the authorities discovered his visa had expired. But with the special registration, he said he has lost that hope.

"What can I do? I can do nothing," Mohammed said. "A human cannot do everything."

Many, however, have decided to register. Thomas, a 35-year-old Pakistani student who lives in Corona, registered for himself and his mentally retarded brother. The INS scheduled a March 14 court hearing for Thomas on the very same day Thomas's two parents are to be sworn in as American citizens.

A doctor back in Pakistan, Thomas came to the United States with his brother in 1997 with the hopes of getting a medical license to practice here.

Although he and his brother have some paperwork problems, Thomas said an INS official told him he would likely not face deportation.

"I called the INS office," he said. "They said 'You don't need to worry, because you are not involved in any crime.'"

Still, Thomas said he is not certain they will be allowed to stay. He is particularly concerned for his brother, who has Down Syndrome, if he were forced to return to Pakistan.

"It would be very difficult for him," he said. "He can't live without Mom."

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300 Ext. 141.

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