THE INFORMANTS: Immigrants Offered Incentives To Give Evidence on Terrorists
Attorney General John Ashcroft today offered a deal to foreigners — if they provide useful evidence against terrorists, the administration will help them remain in the United States and may even offer a fast track to American citizenship.
''The people who have the courage to make the right choice deserve to be welcomed as guests into our country and perhaps to one day become fellow citizens,'' Mr. Ashcroft said as he described how he hoped to use a little-known seven-year-old program to offer incentives for providing information on terrorism. Officials said it was meant to represent a carrot to go along with the several other recent law enforcement initiatives that were less popular among many immigrant groups.
Civil liberties advocates were uncertain of its impact. Many lauded it as a useful counter to the administration's previous initiatives, including plans to question some 5,000 men in the country who have come from 26 Arab and Muslim nations. Others said it was flawed because illegal immigrants might be reluctant to come forward and make themselves known to the government.
Mr. Ashcroft said immigrants were in an especially good position to learn of terrorist plots or witness unusual behavior among people in their community.
''Terrorist activity rarely goes entirely unnoticed,'' he told reporters. ''Noncitizens are often ideally situated to observe the precursors to, or early stages of terrorist activity.''
The initiative, which Mr. Ashcroft called the Responsible Cooperators Program, was originally put in place in 1994 as part of a law aimed at reducing violent crime. It expired in September, but a bipartisan bill renewing the program was quickly enacted with little notice and President Bush signed it into law on Oct. 1.
In giving the program a public lift today, Mr. Ashcroft signaled that in light of the terrorist investigation, the Justice Department was eager to find people to consider for the law's special benefits.
The law allows the government to award a special classification to people who provide useful information to law enforcement authorities. Aliens who obtain that status may remain in the United States for three years even if they had previously come to the United States illegally.
Mr. Ashcroft said the special status is also available to people outside the country who go to American embassies with useful information and seek to enter the United States. Although the special visa classification expires in three years, Mr. Ashcroft said it could be a smoothed path to eventual citizenship.
''If the information that you provide is reliable and useful,'' he said, ''we will help you obtain a visa to reside in the United States and ultimately become a United States citizen.''
Paul Virtue, a Washington lawyer who is a former general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that although the program has been in use since 1994, ''What seems new is that it was never used in such a concerted effort aimed at one crime.''
Last year, there were 97 applications for the special status. Most were for help in regular criminal investigations and only a handful involved aiding the authorities in terrorist investigations.
One issue that seemed unclear was how an informant would be able to know if the information was useful enough to qualify for the special status. The rules provide that a Justice Department official has to make a recommendation, and the attorney general and the secretary of state both have to agree the information is worthy.
Mr. Ashcroft said the information does not have to lead to a conviction and may even appear insignificant to the informant. ''It might be a missing link in a chain of evidence,'' he said urging aliens to ''give it a try.''
Jeanne Butterfield, the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, described the move as a welcome step but added that immigrants might be afraid to approach the authorities who they fear might deport them. Ms. Butterfield, a Washington immigration lawyer, said several of her colleagues ''have already told me they wouldn't recommend this to a client.''
Mr. Ashcroft said the program would be organized so that informants are not asked their immigration status, and he added that their status would not be used against them. But in trying to get reliable information, officials face the difficulty that up until today they sent the message that immigration violations would be dealt with harshly.
Lucas Guttentag, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants Rights Project, said, ''Attorney General Ashcroft now makes vague promises that are completely inconsistent with the threat of arrest and detention for any minor visa violation set forth in the existing immigration service memo governing this investigation.''
Nonetheless, Senator Edward M. Kennedy was one of several who applauded the program. Mr. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said the program ''can be an important part of the ongoing comprehensive effort to track down and prosecute the terrorists responsible for the tragedy of Sept. 11.''
David Cole, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights and a critic of the administration's anti-terrorist approach, said tonight that he thought the program was a positive development.
''I think we're much more likely to get the assistance of the immigrant community if we offer rewards rather than treat them as suspects based on their ethnicity or country of origin.''
But Mr. Cole cautioned that for the program to be effective, potential informants would have to be assured that their visits to the authorities would not be used against them. He said that in 1986, when amnesty was offered to illegal immigrants who could demonstrate they had been here seven years, Congress required that anybody who applied could not be deported on the basis of the information they provided.
The law provides for the special status to be given to only 50 people a year who help in a terrorist investigation. Another 200 who help in a criminal investigation can be given the status. Mr. Ashcroft said that if the quota was filled, the authorities would be able to help an informant by delaying any deportation proceedings.
Denyce Sabagh, an immigration and civil liberties lawyer in Washington, said she had successfully used the program in the past for a client who provided law enforcement officials with valuable information. In exchange, she said, the individual was able to remain in the United States.