LOS ANGELES, Dec. 19 (JTA) — Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community is joining area Muslims in accusing the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service of mistreatment during a federally mandated registration of certain immigrants. The Iranian Jews, together with a much larger number of Muslims from Iran, Iraq, Lybia, Sudan and Syria, were detained during a national registration process of those temporarily residing in the United States. “We know of some Iranian-born Jews who are being held under subhuman conditions, even worse than those found in Third World countries,” said Sam Kermanian, the usually low-key secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles. Other human rights advocates compared the situation to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The registration, part of a U.S. attempt to track Middle Eastern men living in the United States, ended Monday. Sources in the Iranian Jewish community said up to a dozen community members had been detained or arrested, though attorney Beck Saffary said he was trying to raise bail of $1,500 per person for 35 Iranian Jews. There are some 30,000 Iranian Jews and more than 500,000 Iranian Muslims in Southern California. A large protest rally was held Wednesday afternoon, organized by a Farsi-language radio station. Mainstream Iranian Jewish organizations did not participate, but a relatively unknown group, Persian Jews United, joined the protest. Eight of the Jewish detainees apparently emigrated from Iran to Israel and later came to the United States, and many hold Israeli citizenship. Zvi Vapni, the Israeli deputy consul general in Los Angeles, said he had received complaints of “very hard conditions,” perhaps due to overcrowding, and had conveyed the consulate’s concern to the INS. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice denied the charges of mistreatment. Calling the charges “preposterous” and saying they weren’t backed by evidence, Jorge Martinez said the law mandates the detention of persons in the United States illegally. With some 10,000 men required to register nationwide, Martinez said some detention rooms “may have been a little crowded,” but said any incidents “have been blown way out of proportion.” Complaints had been received only in Los Angeles and Boston, Martinez said. Bita Yaghoubian said that her uncle, a 45-year old businessman with a wife and two children, had reported to the downtown federal building because he had not yet completed the process to obtain a green card. “He was arrested like a criminal,” Yaghoubian said. “They taped his wrists and ankles, put him in a room with the air conditioning way up, with no blankets or mattress.” Yaghoubian also reported terrible sanitary conditions and very little food, which the uncle, who keeps kosher, declined. Yaghoubian said her family put up the $1,500 bail on Monday, but the uncle still was being held on Wednesday. Some fear that if any of the Jewish detainees are deported, they might be returned to their native Iran. “I understand the need for vigilance, but they are jailing some people because they overstayed their visa for a few days maybe 20 years ago,” Kermanian said. “That’s not justified.” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), speaking from his Washington office, charged that “the INS has really messed up. They are using a sledgehammer approach and jeopardizing the goal of tracking visa holders.” Waxman said he has protested to the INS, but had not yet received a response. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles also expressed its concern.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.