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INS offers grace period to visitors

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WASHINGTON — Males age 16 and older from 18 countries who may have missed earlier deadlines to register with U.S. immigration authorities will get another chance to do so without fear of penalty, the government announced Thursday.

The decision to provide a grace period, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 7, comes as the Immigration and Naturalization Service expanded the registration program to add men and boys from Indonesia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Bangladesh. The post-Sept. 11 program has drawn strenuous protests as too harsh.

The grace period will apply to long-term male visitors from five countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria — who missed a Dec. 16 deadline, according to an INS notice published in the Federal Register.

The extra time also will apply to those from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen who missed a Jan. 10 deadline.

INS officials believe fear of arrest or deportation, lack of knowledge about the program and large crowds at local offices might have prevented many of the affected people from registering earlier.

Inclusion of the five latest countries in the program will affect thousands more long-term male visitors to the United States, the largest group since the program began last fall, officials said.

Under a program enacted by Congress in response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, males 16 and older from 25 countries are required to visit local INS offices to be photographed and fingerprinted and show certain documents. Some countries included are considered potential havens for terrorists.

Different deadlines have been imposed for different countries. The biggest group to this point is the 14,000 men and boys from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan who must register by Feb. 21.

Hundreds of people, mainly Iranians, were detained in Southern California last month when the registration deadline arrived for the first group of visa holders. That prompted angry demonstrations and a lawsuit against the federal government.

Most were detained because their visas had expired and were released pending a hearing on their cases.

Since those detentions, the Justice Department has embarked on a more intensive campaign to justify the program and ensure that affected people get notified. The registration is part of a broader INS plan to set up, by 2005, a comprehensive system detailing who is entering, leaving and staying in the United States.

Long-term visitors to the United States from Indonesia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Bangladesh will have from Feb. 24 to March 28 to register at local INS offices. This does not affect U.S. citizens, diplomats, refugees or permanent resident aliens — those holding "green cards."

Most of those required to register are in the United States as students or business travelers or are visiting relatives.

Immigration lawyers say many people are afraid to come forward, in part because of an INS backlog that can snarl their paperwork and make them vulnerable to deportation if their visas expire while they are awaiting a final outcome of their cases.

"In light of the mass, warrantless arrests, which we believe to be illegal, it is difficult for us to recommend, in good faith, for people to come forward to register," Pete Schey, an attorney for several immigrants in California, said earlier this month.

On the Net: Immigration and Naturalization Service: www.ins.usdoj.gov