On the last Friday evening in January, two weeks after the overseas detention of local community leader Sabri Samirah, nearly 100 Muslims gathered in the basement of the Mosque Foundation, a house of worship in south-suburban Bridgeview. They were there for a workshop on how to deal with “Special Registration,” part of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, the Justice Department’s new program to document the whereabouts of foreign visitors ages 16 to 45 from predominantly Muslim countries.

Samirah had been heading back to Chicago from Amman on January 18 when he was stopped in Shannon, Ireland, and informed that an INS fax designating him a “security risk” had just arrived and would prevent his return to America for an indefinite period of time.

“It could be any one of you,” Manal El-Hrisse, who worked with Samirah at the United Muslim Americans Association in Palos Hills, told the audience. Then she introduced the three legal advisers who had been brought in to take questions regarding reentry and related immigration issues.

Special Registration is being handled on a country-by-country basis, starting with Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria, whose nationals were initially supposed to register by December 16. Confusion has already caused the deadline to be pushed back in several cases; Saudis and Pakistanis, who were due to have complied by this Friday, February 21, now have four extra weeks to do so. In addition, the policy doesn’t specify any requirements for Palestinians. In Bridgeview, which has one of the largest Palestinian populations outside of the West Bank, this gap has caused a great deal of concern.

Some observers have characterized Special Registration as damage control on the part of an agency embarrassed at having issued new visas to dead hijackers Marwan al Shehhi and Mohamed Atta six months after September 11. But the process of writing new laws to combat terrorism actually started just after the attacks, with the PATRIOT Act, which gave Attorney General John Ashcroft and other lawmakers wide leeway to bypass the legal checks and balances that usually protect civil liberties.

Civil-liberties groups have decried the PATRIOT Act, and most foreign visitors are still trying to figure out how the new registration system works. Nevertheless, last week the Department of Justice announced yet another new piece of legislation, the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, which would loosen the standards required for surveillance of U.S. citizens.

Jim Fennerty, a lawyer who represented Rabih Haddad, chairman of the shuttered Global Relief Foundation down the street, was at the Mosque Foundation as a representative of the National Lawyers Guild. The first panelist to speak, he described the PATRIOT Act as “a very scary document” that throws “the Fourth Amendment out the window.” He went on, “The government wants to control people with fear while they gobble up oil profits and the empire expands overseas.”

As Fennerty wrapped up his remarks, El-Hrisse again reminded the crowd of Samirah. “The INS said he was not welcome in this country because he is a security risk,” she said. “You are not safe. Do not travel. His lawyer said it is not recommended.”

The crowd looked perplexed. “I see a lot of question marks on your faces and I’m trying to figure out why,” she added. “We have to get organized. We need to be ready to help his family.”

Then came a 20-minute break for prayer. The men filed upstairs, the women knelt downstairs, and two girls who looked to be about ten years old forgot about the cups of coffee they’d loaded with creamer and left on a table in the corner. As people filed back to their seats, someone jostled the table, spilling the coffee all over flyers from the Arab American Action Network and other agencies listing registration tips.

After the break, Ruth Edwards of DePaul Legal Clinic read from a prepared statement about how INS functions will transfer over to the new Department of Homeland Security. But the crowd showed little interest, and people started talking among themselves. A few in the audience mentioned the hundreds of people who were jailed after they tried to register in Los Angeles in December. How could they be sure they wouldn’t be detained when they showed up to register?

Edwards cautiously noted that though rumors of arrests have been exaggerated, it would be wise to talk to an attorney before going to register.

“Immigration doesn’t usually enforce such things,” she said. “But the laws are there–if they want to target you personally, they have the right to go and do that.”

People began to look more anxious.

A man from the West Bank with a Jordanian passport raised his hand to ask what he should be doing. The basement suddenly grew noisy with queries from others in the same situation. National advocacy groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee concur that it’s difficult to figure out how Special Registration applies to Palestinians. The latter group sent a letter to the Justice Department asking for clarification, but Nabil Mohamad, who works in the Washington office, said this week that what they got back doesn’t do much to clear things up. Khurrum Wahid, who handles legal issues for CAIR, says, “The INS doesn’t even know as to what category these people fall into.”

No one from INS had been invited to the Mosque Foundation. So the third member of the panel, Yaser Tabara, a member of the Midwest Immigrant and Human Rights Center and a DePaul law student who’s taking the bar this month, tried to give instruction. “When you go to register, you need to bring all the proof that you are legal,” he said in Arabic. “The address where you live on a bill. The reference name of a person. Pictures, a joint bank account–anything that shows it is a true marriage.”

When someone is detained, Tabara noted, bail can range from $1,500 to $25,000. “They only take cashier’s checks,” he added.

The crowd filed from the basement just after 10 PM, most people looking more confused than when they’d come in three hours earlier. Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network, distributed a dry set of his registration-tip flyers and reminded people that his organization would be passing out surveys at the entrances and exits of registration checkpoints.

“We’re worried, especially after the bungled situation in LA,” said Abudayyeh, who will use the surveys to try to counter any bungling in Chicago. “There’s a handful [of people who’ve gone to register] unaccounted for here,” Abudayyeh said, but he didn’t want to conclude that they’d been detained. There are a lot of people to keep track of, he said, and maybe not all of them remembered to get an exit survey. Or to return the phone calls that he and his colleagues made to try and reach them afterward.