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U.S. clarifies detention plan, rights groups protest

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. officials Wednesday said the government will detain new asylum seekers who arrive in the United States from 33 nations viewed as having connections to al Qaeda or other militant activities.

In clarifying the policy which was announced with few details earlier this week, officials said they would not detain asylum seekers already living in the United States.

That calmed fears of mass arrests but did not stem rights groups' criticism of the move.

The detentions, implemented as part of a series of tough security measures sparked by the looming war with Iraq, affect people from about 33 countries who have arrived at borders and other entry points since Tuesday to request asylum.

The Department of Homeland Security announced on Monday it was implementing a series of measures, including the temporary detention of certain asylum seekers, as part of its heightened security status. But it did not clarify at the time that the detentions would affect only future asylum seekers.

Bill Strassberger, spokesman for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said people who will be detained are those from the targeted countries who arrive at "points of entry" like borders and airports and request asylum.

Normally when a person arrives in the United States, either illegally or with a valid visa, and requests asylum they would go through a process to determine whether they face a "credible fear" of persecution in their home country.

Most asylum seekers are normally not detained but allowed to live in the United States while their request for asylum is processed. Processing can take up to six months.

U.S. officials have identified the 33 countries and two territories targeted by the United States as those with ties to al Qaeda or other "terrorist groups". They include Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and a number of other Middle Eastern and Asian nations.

It was not clear how many people might be affected by the detentions. In 2002, about 9,900 people arrived in the United States and requested asylum at ports of entry and just under 600 of those were from the targeted countries.

Persecuting the persecuted?

Noel Saleh, an immigration lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union office in Detroit, said the policy was still objectionable, even if it did not mean there would be massive detentions of asylum seekers already in the United States.

"What purpose is to be served by requiring this mandatory detention other than one of just persecuting someone who's coming to flee persecution," Saleh asked.

"You leave a country where you've been persecuted and you get this one-way ticket to a U.S. jail," said Wendy Wagenheim, a spokeswoman for the ACLU in Detroit. "Regardless of how small the number is that does seem unfair, unjust."

The U.S. Committee for Refugees called the policy "troubling" because the United States is applying the measures to people based on nationality not their personal history.

"The policy also alienates people who would otherwise be our natural allies in the fight against terror," the group said in a statement. "People fleeing the countries where al Qaeda is active are rarely sympathetic to its aims and are even likely to be among its victims, with strong motives to help us."

But Strassberger said the moves were necessary.

"In today's circumstances, its a very prudent thing to do. It's not meant to dissuade people from seeking asylum in our country. We want to provide asylum ... but we also want to protect the homeland."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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