Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company   

The New York Times

December 5, 2001

Federal Sweep Shifts Attitude of Immigrants About the U.S.


LOUISVILLE, Ky., Dec. 3 - They settled in tattered apartment buildings in the working-class suburbs of northern Kentucky, thrilled to find fast-food jobs and to live among others who had managed to escape the parched fields back home in Mauritania. They smiled when they met their neighbors and worked on their English. A few managed to convince themselves that they had pierced the barrier into the American mainstream.

But then, after Sept. 11, some of those neighbors started making calls to the F.B.I. One Mauritanian looked exactly like the hijacker Mohamed Atta, one caller said, certain to have spotted a core terrorist cell. Another Mauritanian had been taking flight lessons, a different tipster said. As the calls mounted, the Federal Bureau of Investigation decided to act.

Within two weeks of the attacks, federal agents had knocked on the doors of hundreds of Mauritanians in the river counties between Louisville and Cincinnati, asking to see immigration papers. On Sept. 14, the F.B.I. and the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested more than 40 people, nearly 10 percent of the largest Mauritanian community in the United States, and held them overnight on immigration charges.

Most were released the next day, after having been closely questioned about any prior knowledge of the attacks. Four remained in custody, including the 20-year-old son of a diplomatic family in Mauritania, on the northwestern coast of Africa. They began a 40-day odyssey through the immigration detention system that left them shaken and bitter.

"I used to like the United States, but now I don't understand it," said Cheikh Melainine ould Belal, the diplomat's son who overstayed his tourist visa by six weeks and wound up spending that same amount of time in a variety of jails from Indiana to Louisiana.

"I was going to learn English, but now I don't want to ever speak it again," he added, his Arabic words translated by a second cousin in the suburban apartment that they share.

The Mauritanians were among more than 1,200 immigrants arrested by the government since Sept. 11. Their case is striking because of the unusually broad effects that their arrests have had on their isolated but tightly woven community. With a relatively small number of other Muslims who live in Kentucky, the Mauritanians instantly rushed to one another's aid, saying they felt particularly vulnerable to suspicions of a terrorist crime to which no one from their country has been connected.

Nonetheless, reflecting their eagerness to maintain good relations with their adopted country, several Mauritanians said their treatment had been mild compared with the repression in Africa.

Mr. ould Belal arrived in the United States in February and spoke so little English that he was never able to understand the immigration officials who locked him up and kept him moving. His mother, who is married to the first counselor of the Mauritanian Embassy in Qatar, called the Mauritanian Embassy in Washington, desperate for information about her son.

"She sees him as her baby," Kemal ould Mohamedou, the first counselor at the embassy in Washington, said. "She knew he had nothing to do with the World Trade Center bombing. So she did not understand why he would be in jail."

The embassy was not particularly sympathetic. Mr. ould Belal had, after all, overstayed his visa, Mr. ould Mohamedou explained, and anyway it was understandable that the police might want to arrest Arabs under the circumstances.

"I understand why they were arresting our people," Mr. ould Mohamedou said. "They had all those thousands of people dead in the buildings and on the planes. At this time, you cannot expect them to be the good Americans that we are used to them being, respectful of everyone's rights. The country was in a special state. So we did not overreact or protest."

Although Mr. ould Belal and his friends remain unhappy over his treatment - and his impending deportation - many other Mauritanians in the country said they thought that a 40-day sentence for an immigration violation was mild compared with the punishments in Mauritania. Boullah ould Sidiahmed, patriarch of the Mauritanian community in Louisville, pointed out that when people were taken away in Africa, they frequently did not return home.

"If an attack like this happened in other countries, they would be out there killing people to find out what happened," said Mr. ould Sidiahmed, an automobile dealer who was apparently the first Mauritanian to settle in the Louisville region, in 1994.

Ould, meaning "son of," is part of most male Mauritanian names.

Mr. ould Sidiahmed said he was sorry for what had happened to Mr. ould Belal but added that he did not believe that Mr. ould Belal was so upset with his treatment that he would not remain in the United States if he could.

Three thousand Mauritanians are in the United States, according to embassy figures, with all but few here legally. Most came to escape a country in which more than half the population lives in poverty and in which tensions regularly flare between the Arab Berber majority and the 30 percent of the population that is black. Human rights organizations regularly criticize the continuing black slavery in Mauritania.

Most Mauritanians in the Louisville region arrived after Mr. ould Sidiahmed, who became a successful trader at automobile auctions, sending back word that the region was tolerant and had plenty of jobs. By the time Mr. ould Belal arrived this year to see family and friends, 400 to 500 Mauritanians were in the region, many working illegally at low wages.

Mr. ould Belal said he did not know why he and three others had been singled out by the I.N.S. for detention when others were let go. His immigration lawyer, Dennis Clare, said he had been told by an F.B.I. agent that a tipster had reported that Mr. ould Belal had gone to flight school, which was not true.

Another possible explanation is the number of entry stamps from Qatar on his passport, obtained when traveling with his family to their post there, another subject that the F.B.I. also asked about at length. Officials of the immigration and investigation agencies have declined to comment on the Mauritanian cases in detail, except to say they were among many aliens in the sweep who were found to have immigration violations.

"We are moving cautiously before releasing on bond any individual arrested in connection with this investigation," said Karen Kraushaar, a spokeswoman for the I.N.S.

Mr. Clare said his client, along with three other Mauritanians, had been moved from a detention center in nearby New Albany, Ind., to Bowling Green, Ky., then to Memphis and then to the federal detention center at Oakdale, La. Usually Mr. ould Belal did not know where he was or where he was going, and it often took Mr. Clare several days to find him.

The three others being held face deportation, too.

Mr. ould Belal said that the authorities had not mistreated him but that even after being released on Oct. 22 he was never told why he had been held or why he was allowed to go free on $2,000 bond. He agreed to leave the country as a condition of his release, and he plans to leave in a few weeks with a good deal less reluctance than he would have had before.

"They don't apologize to me," he said. "But it doesn't matter now. I don't want to be here anymore anyway."