Get involved, or perish
There are innocent people in jail. What are you going to do about it?

By Payam Mohseni
December 23, 2002
The Iranian

With this article, I intend to not only inform the public of the unconstitutional arrests and inhumane treatment of individuals who voluntarily registered with the INS but to demand of the Iranian-American community a political and cultural renaissance to reflect our needs.

I thank Ms. Banafsheh Akhlaghi, an attorney of Akhlaghi & Associates in San Francisco, for her intense passion and ceaseless aid to the plight of those affected by the new INS laws. Most importantly, I thank the detainees who touched my life through their stories of hardship and pain. The impression that their teary and pleading looks left in me will never be erased from my mind.

This is the story they imparted me with to tell you, you who truly cares about the welfare of our fellow human beings and the inviolable rights that should be highly safeguarded in our society: Families and news cameras were all outside the morning of Sunday December 22, when I arrived at the CCA, the INS detention facility on Otay Mesa in San Diego, California, to accompany Ms. Akhlaghi along with Farhan, a first year law student, to interview the detainees.

An Iranian gentleman stated that he had not been allowed to see his brother when he visited the facility a day earlier; everyone was waiting for an official response. An INS agent came outside and explained that it was probably a misunderstanding. Consequently, the families were granted entrance as well as Ms. Akhlaghi, Farhan and I, as the legal team of the detainees.

We were led upstairs and then down almost freezing-cold hallways to the chamber that held all the detainees. It was like a scene from a movie: a glass wall separated the two worlds and our only line of communication was by the phones provided. The detainees were seated behind the glass panes speaking with their families when we arrived to interview them.

They were very excited since they had not been able to communicate with the outside world for a long time, and they had thought that there would be no one to help them. They had been waiting to tell us their story. I was able to interview three Iranians, an Iraqi, and a Syrian.

Although they each had different stories to tell, there was a common thread that tied them all together. First, none of them had received notices to appear to register with the INS. Not a requirement, they had all voluntarily gone to the INS just as a precautionary step. They were legally exempt from deportation.

Second, the officers did not explain anything to the detainees as to what was happening, why it was happening, and what the procedures thereafter would be. A few were told not to worry because the judge would release them in less than 72 hours, but here they were speaking with me in jail a week later.

Third, they were all from the San Francisco Bay Area but had been transported around the country. Boarded unto jets, they went from the SF Bay Area to Arizona, then Colorado, back to Oakland, then Bakersfield and finally San Diego. Throughout the travels, they were not told the destination until they actually landed.

This continuous transport was extremely consequential to the services the detainees were able to receive. The detainees have rights to use the phone to call a family member and an attorney, and they also have the right to receive medical attention (a few of the detainees were ill). However, none of these basic rights were given to them with the explanation that since they were "in transit", they would not receive these rights. The ill detainees were not treated by a doctor and did not receive medication either.

Fourth, they were handcuffed and then shackled with chains from around their feet connecting to their handcuffs. This was on them for hours without end while they were held in rooms or were being transported. Eating was a very difficult experience for them.

Fifth, none of them had received court date hearings or been given a bail amount. This is very difficult to handle legally as they are not in the legal system so that an attorney can serve them efficiently and justly.

Sixth, they all reiterated the strategy of sleep deprivation used by the agents. They would be in offices during the day till 1AM waiting to be interviewed or to fill out forms. Then they would be woken up at 4AM to be transported again.

All identified lack of sleep as their most pressing concern as it destroyed their short-term memory and increased stress. Seventh, facilities were of poor quality or misused. They were forced to sleep on concrete floors even though there were rooms with beds present.

There was always an open toilet in the middle of the room that was usually clogged and unsanitary. Blankets were not provided at times even though the detainees requested them. There was an incident where toilet paper was used for insulation from the cold.

Furthermore, the detainees were able to take a shower only once last week. Also, vending machines for food were provided but the detainees were not allowed to use their money to purchase food. And of the food that they were served, some had passed their expiration dates.

Lastly, they were all harassed verbally with extreme profanity and ethnic slurs relating to their Middle Eastern origin. They would not tell me precisely what was said as they hoped to forget the obscene comments. The treatment by the officers was overall very rude. Some were even described as downright "scary", such as a man in the San Diego detention camp, the place they had been taken before the CCA, who smoked a big cigar behind his desk in the facility and made continuous insulting slurs to the detainees.

This was most of the information that was given to me by the detainees, but I knew that this was not the only message they would want me to tell you. They were not only requesting blankets and medication, but they were requesting the community to save them. They were requesting of us to speak out.

On my part, I have to tell you that I am very ashamed! It is not acceptable if the government violates its own laws written in the US Constitution. If it breaks one law, there will always be a possibility that it will break another one as well.

I am also upset at the Iranian-American community. Although there has been a very good uproar over these events and I am truly thankful to all those involved, we need to be more politically organized and have a stronger voice in order to stop these events from the start rather than practicing the process of damage control later.

A couple of the Iranian detainees told me that they had left Iran because of political injustices only to end up under the same kind of persecution in the United States. This comment made me question why so many Iranians in the US are apolitical. I know that most discuss politics a lot, but many never act on what they say.

This point has been a difficulty for me as a member of Students for Progress and Development in Iran (SPDI), a non-profit student organization established at UC Berkeley. Many students just do not want to get involved with anything political. And before our existence, all the Iranian student organizations in the US that I know of completely stay out of politics. How can we defend the rights that we are entitled to if no one wants to deal with politics?

With this line of thinking, I absolutely do not understand how one can criticize the government in Iran or why people left. If people really cared about the importance of "democracy" and "accountability" they would have to be active participants within it. Otherwise, in my opinion, they would be undermining the basis of democracy itself.

But many of the students' situation is also due to the parents. Many parents will not let their sons and daughters get involved in politics. Just know that such an act in itself is political as it takes away all of the power that our community could have had in this country! There are innocent people in jail right now, and there are laws in place that ensures the arrest of such people. We must not rest until we organize and unite the Iranian community to gain a strong voice in US politics and secure our Constitutional rights.

We must not rest until all of these innocent individuals are released from prison and an apology is made to the entire country. These were the requests the detainees made to me with their eyes. I hope we serve them well. If anyone knows of any detainees who are missing and have not been accounted for, please e-mail me as soon as possible. To find out more please visit

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