Minnetonka, Minn. — In the Twin Cities suburb of Minnetonka, Sharjeel, a 28-yearold Pakistani software engineer, is meeting with his lawyer, Stephen Thal. Sharjeel has asked that his last name and the name of his employer not be used in this story. In two weeks, he plans to report to the INS for special registration.
Now, he and Thal work through the stacks of documents in Sharjeel's file. The papers show he's been in perfect compliance with INS regulations ever since he first came to this country to study computer science eight years ago. He's a long-term worker here, but hasn't applied for citizenship. If anything goes wrong at the INS, Sharjeel's job and future in this country could be in jeopardy.
So he has a few questions.
"I was told by a friend of mine that when you go for the interview process your legal counselor can be with you for the interview, but if they decide to take an action, whatever that is, then you don't have any legal guidance available at that time, is that even true?" Sharjeel asks.
"You do have a right to have counsel with you. The only time that we might not be able to be present with you is when they take you back into a secure area to actually do the fingerprints and photograph," Thal replies.
Thal advises Sharjeel on the information the INS may require from him, including his library card and credit card numbers. The two go over each question that might be asked: Why did you come to this country? What organizations have you belonged to?
Nothing seems likely to cause problems. Still, Sharjeel's employer isn't taking any chances. The company is giving him time off from work to prepare and has even paid for his lawyer.
"They've told me even though you know everything is clean, but this will be just insurance to make sure you don't say anything stupid, or you don't say anything which you're not supposed to," Sharjeel explains. "I'm actually 101 percent confident, I don't have any problem, because I have everything in order. I don't have anything to be afraid of."
Two weeks later, steam rises from the cars idling in the early morning darkness of the INS parking lot. The temperature is two degrees below zero. Some of these INS clients have been here since midnight, when one of them put a signup list on the sidewalk in front of the glass entrance doors. Now, shortly before the doors open at 6:30 a.m., people are piling out of their cars and using their self-imposed system to find their places in line.
"50! 51!" calls the man who put out the notebook at midnight. "We're at the end of the list, and I'm done, I'm cold, I’ve tried the best I can," he says, hurrying to take his place in line.
These clients have good reason to get here early. The INS has not been taking appointments for special registration or many other INS requirements, even though clients can lose their work permits and jobs or be deported for missing deadlines. The day before, by nine in the morning, the INS was turning away people for special registration and telling them to come back the next day.
Sharjeel takes his place at the end of a line of about 70 INS clients. The doors open, and people shuffle stiffly inside. The first 75 people are ushered through the metal detectors to the INS's next waiting room, downstairs. The rest will have to wait up to six or eight hours.
Sharjeel is at the very tail end of first group, so he makes it through. That puts him second on the day's list of special registrations. At 8:45, he's called in for his interview, along with his attorney.
By INS standards, it's been a short wait, only two and a half hours from his first arrival that morning. They emerge about half an hour later. They still look tense, but everything has gone well.
"It almost felt like when you go to a bank, where they ask you a bunch of questions, where have you lived, where have you worked, kind of that area, Sharjeel says.
He’s pretty sure they already had all the data they asked for, and he says the interviewers didn't ask whether he'd ever been associated with terrorism. But the experience hasn't changed how he feels about America.
"I've seen this in different countries where they do check on their visitors, and non immigrants. I've been through this once in Sri Lanka, so I'm pretty much ok with the process," Sharjeel says.
Asked why he allowed a reporter to follow along, he says he figured it might help others understand, even those who don’t have to register.
"Let's say, American citizens, they might understand what's going on and what the process is. I know at my work my whole team knows what the process is by now, they all wished me luck yesterday, when I was leaving from work, and said, 'well, hopefully we'll see you on Thursday.'"
Sharjeel says goodbye and disappears into the elevator, leaving his attorney Stephen Thal behind. Unlike Sharjeel, Thal is not ok with the process, which he says is targeting the wrong people.
"I mean people like Sharjeel and I've got a doctor out here today who's a medical resident. I mean these people are our friends, they're benefiting our community, they're providing a valuable service. These are the people we want to have on our side," Thal says.
Thal says he's already seeing some clients who have lived in this country for years but who now face deportation for minor immigration violations. And he questions whether targeting people who are here legally and who are willing to come in and register is really going to make the United States safer from terrorists.
But INS Deputy District Director John Klow defends the program as a long-overdue tightening of the INS's system for tracking visitors.
"The system that the INS had [before] involved issuing a small white card called a form I 94 to the visitor, then when the visitor left from the United States, the visitor was expected to turn that card in," Klow said.
INS officials say even though the intensified tracking now applies only to males from predominantly Muslim countries, it will eventually be extended to apply to all visitors.
In the meantime, it has raised protests from targeted groups.
The government of Pakistan has asked to have its citizens exempted from the program. Pakistan's foreign minister recently told U.S. officials the program is sparking anger at home, and anxiety among Pakistani citizens who have long lived peacefully in this country.
"They support their families not only here, but also back home in Pakistan," Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursid Mahmood Kasuri told the New York Times. "These people are just not the stuff that terrorists are made of."