WASHINGTON -- More than 350 people who have committed crimes or are suspected of terrorist links have been arrested in a federal crackdown on foreigners with visa violations, part of a broader effort to prevent Al Qaeda from disrupting US elections.
Agents with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Homeland Security Department component, are matching identities of visa violators nationwide with names in secret government terrorism databases in hopes of finding Al Qaeda operatives.
"We're intensifying it in the days leading up to the election," Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Dean Boyd said yesterday.
Some groups representing Muslims and Arab-Americans are concerned that some people may be targeted because of their ethnicity or religious beliefs.
"If somebody breaks the law in terms of their immigration status, they should pay the price," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"We can only hope they are not targeting people based on whether they are Muslim."
Since its inception in June 2003, the division's Compliance Enforcement Unit has opened more than 5,200 investigations of visa violators nationwide.
Of those apprehended, 359 are considered "priority arrests" -- those with possible links to terrorism or criminal histories.
The stepped-up initiative is one of many government efforts intensified because of intelligence reports indicating Al Qaeda is determined to attack inside the United States before the Nov. 2 election.
The FBI has conducted more than 13,000 interviews this year, with more to come, in an effort to gather intelligence about the potential plot.
Special attention is being paid to the hunt for immigration violators because some hijackers involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had violated terms of their visas.
One was Hani Hanjour, who did not show up for English classes as required by his December 2000 visa.
About nine months later, he piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.
In its final report, the Sept. 11 commission said the government could have "potentially excluded, removed, or come into further contact with several hijackers" if a better immigration tracking system had existed.
Since the attacks, the government has created several systems for tracking foreigners with visas.
They can alert agents to possible violators, such as students who drop out of school and business people who do not do the work they promised when they arrived.
Advocates for Muslims and Arab-Americans say they do not fault the government for pursuing people who are in the United States illegally.
But they say the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts together are triggering renewed fears that US counterterrorism officials are targeting people based on their religion, ethnicity, or national origin.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said in a statement that it had been contacted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials after raising concerns that the initiative "will be selectively carried out against Muslims and Arabs."
Even after those talks, the committee said it remained worried that the division would base many of its investigations on a government registry of men from 24 mostly Muslim and Arab countries.
Advocacy groups also raised concerns about the FBI interviews. They said agents seem to be targeting some people multiple times.
Justice Department officials acknowledge that the FBI is talking to people who have been helpful in the past, but also to many others when they gain new information about them.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials insist their investigations are triggered only by alleged visa violations.
Priority is given to "high-risk" violators whose names seem to match any of those compiled by the Terrorist Screening Center, a new FBI-run operation to consolidate US lists of suspected terrorists and sympathizers.
"These are not mass roundups. It's very case-by-case and specific. It isn't targeting any specific race or religion," Boyd said.