By Tien-Shun Lee
At a Woodside Special Registration seminar for Bangladeshis, INS representatives acknowledged last week that individuals who had overstayed their visa might be summoned to appear before a judge but urged people not to be afraid to come forward.
Special Registration is a system that was put into effect Sept. 11, 2002 that requires individuals from primarily Muslim countries, including Bangladesh, who meet certain criteria to appear before an INS official to be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted.
“There is a great deal of confusion with the Special Registration,” said Shyconia Burden, a community relations officer for the Immigration & Naturalization Service, speaking before a group of about 30 Bangladeshis at the Dhaka Club and Restaurant in Woodside.
“Whether you're undocumented or here illegally, our office's goal is to get you information. … There is nothing to be afraid of if you're an individual that has abided by the law.”
The seminar was sponsored by the World Human Rights and Development Organization, a non-profit city organization that helps immigrants with language barriers, jobs, and human rights.
There are approximately 100,000 Bangladeshi in the city, half of whom live in Queens, said Shah Haque, the president of the nonprofit. Neighborhoods with concentrated populations of Bangladeshi include Astoria, Jackson Heights and Glen Oaks.
Burden said that while there had been rumors of people going into 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan, where the city INS office is located, and not coming out, no one would be detained unless there was a warrant for his or her arrest.
Bangladeshis who register and are in the country illegally after overstaying their visas will not be detained, but they might be issued a Notice to Appear, which would require them to appear before a judge at a later date, Burden said. At that time, the burden of proof would be upon the individual to prove to the judge that he or she should remain in the country.
While Burden said by going to the INS Bangladeshis could learn how to obtain legal status in the country, Saurv Sarkar, a community organizer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said only a tiny minority of people who were issued a Notice to Appear qualified for legal status.
“The odds are stacked against someone, particularly in an era like this,” Sarkar said. “If they go in to register, they could get an NTA and get deported.”
So far, Special Registration has targeted mostly men over 16 from Muslim countries who were admitted to the United States on or before Sept. 30, 2002.
The latest round of Special Registration applies to men born before Feb. 24, 1987 who are from Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan or Kuwait. The deadline for registration is April 25.
Individuals who are citizens, hold green cards, have a diplomat visa or have received asylum or applied for asylum before a particular date are exempt from registering. Individuals who entered the country without talking to an INS officer are also exempt.
While INS officers will not knock on doors to find individuals, people who meet Special Registration requirements who do not register may face criminal charges at a later date, which could make it harder for them to obtain legal status in the country, Burden said.
Sarkar said most people who turn up to register for Special Registration are those who think they have a completely clean slate.
“What kind of potential criminal or terrorist is going to turn themselves in to the government?” Sarkar asked. “I would say probably most people who would be placing themselves at risk are smart enough not to go register.”
Sarkar said his outreach program would never tell someone to do something illegal, but it would also not suggest that someone to do something without being informed of the consequences, particularly if their actions could result in their being uprooted from their entire life.
“It's the law, and you have to obey the law,” said Rahan Zaman, 28, a Bangladeshi restaurant worker from Sunnyside who was planning to register after living in the country for 11 years. “If I don't go, then maybe later when I go to change the status, I can't do it.”
Mdziaul Chowdhury, 28, who works for a restaurant in Forest Hills, said he was not afraid to appear for Special Registration.
“If I have to go, I have to go,” he said. “If they force me to leave, there's nothing I can do.”
Sarkar said people seeking advice about Special Registration could call AALDEF at 212-966-6030, ext. 203, or 212-966-5932, ext. 213.
Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.