Doris Meissner

Last week the U.S. Justice Department's Inspector General issued a long-awaited report on the government's treatment of hundreds of illegal immigrants detained in the wake of September 11. Among its findings: the government failed to inform many detainees of the charges against them, denied them bond, prevented many from seeking legal representation and tolerated "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" by corrections officers at a center in Brooklyn. Out of the 762 detainees, not one was indicted on terrorism charges. NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Beith spoke with Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton and now a senior fellow at Washington's Migration Policy Institute, about the scandal. Excerpts:

What are your thoughts on the report?

I think it really corroborates what a lot of outside observers have been talking about, which is that in the name of responding to the terrorist attacks, there have been substantial violations of people's liberties, and the immigration law has been used as a very blunt instrument.

What could--or should--the government have done differently?

[After the September 11 attacks] it's understandable that there would have been-- at the outset--this almost panicky reaction on the part of government officials to just start arresting people. But it's also reasonable to say that after the first couple of weeks, when it became clear that there were not going to be a series of repeat attacks im-mediately, somebody needed to take a deep breath and sit down and say, "Wait a minute, what are we doing here? And what is going to be the best way to isolate who might have been involved in these attacks and file charges against them?" That didn't happen.

Last week Attorney General John Ashcroft defended his department's actions and asked Congress for even broader powers, including tougher sentences and the right to hold suspected terrorists without bond.

I cannot imagine that Congress would grant that right. [But] the danger in this kind of discussion is to be dismissive. The government does have the responsibility to do certain things differently, and as a public we are in a different place. But you have to abide by the due-process rules of our system: there must be probable cause, there must be an investigation of individual law-breaking and ultimately charges have to be filed. Our legal system focuses on punishment of criminal behavior that individual people commit, not guilt by association.

How does one single out suspicious individuals without resorting to racial profiling?

By following leads and building from the individual to the general, rather than going from the general to the individual. The actual cases that have been made on terrorism in this country--the Lackawanna group in New York, the group in Oregon--have come from the kind of law enforcement that I've just described or from community cooperation, people coming forward to the government. This [immigrant-detention] stuff has been ultimately a sideshow from the standpoint of effectiveness, but it's a sideshow that has deeply compromised people's rights and our civil-liberties principles.

Supporters of these new measures have criticized the INS for being too lax under your watch. How do you respond to that?

Our immigration system has always been too lax. I have always argued that. But we set priorities in the 1990s based on what the needs at the time seemed to be--and were--which were the southwest border [with Mexico] and technology, where ports of entry, visas and screening were concerned. A lot of fixes were made in the 1990s that responded to 1990s problems. September 11 has created a whole otherset of priorities.

With the tightening of borders, should we expect to see a new America in the future?

I think that even with September 11, what we're seeing is an America that is remaining open to immigration and that fundamentally endorses the idea that we are a nation of immigrants. The really remarkable thing that has happened since September 11 is what has not happened--that Congress has not gone into a fit of anti-immigration legislation and fundamentally changed immigration rules.

How should potential immigrants react to the administration's policies? You seem to think that America will remain welcoming.

I say that with some degree of glass-half-full hope. I am deeply concerned [about] the messages that we are sending, through these changed procedures, to the countries of the Middle East and to the Arab and Muslim worlds. The actions that we are taking are tapping into this deep, deep resentment about America as a hypocritical country that is anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. That can fuel terrorism and it can fuel the ability to recruit among younger generations in particular. We need to address that and I don't see a real effort to do that.