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Memory lapse leads to time behind bars

| Monday, June 16, 2003

Just for a few minutes the other day, I forgot that I was a black man living in America. In my distracted, absent-minded state, I tried to rent a house in Upper St. Clair, drove through Brentwood drunk with a white woman on my arm and filled out membership applications at several prominent country clubs.

Just kidding. Try to forget something like your ethnic background in this country, and it will take about three minutes for someone to come along and remind you.

Forgetting who you are and where you come from can even land a person in jail, especially if that person happens to be from the Middle East. Ask Abdel Qader Abu-Snaineh of Jordan, a LaRoche College junior who is attempting to finish his studies in the Allegheny County Jail. He ended up there after failing to register with federal immigration officials.

The feds aren't picking on Abu-Snaineh alone. He's one of thousands of young men from 25 Arab countries who are required to register with the authorities while living, working or studying in the United States. Nearly 800 Arabs have been arrested for Abu-Snaineh's offense. Some have been detained for as long as eight months.

For his failure to remember that, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Arab men are subject to closer scrutiny than a ticking suitcase at an airport, Abu-Snaineh, 21, has been forced to trade the classroom for the cellblock. When he's released, Abu-Snaineh likely will be deported to Jordan, his studies unfinished and his life in tatters.

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has taken up the student's cause, working to have him released on bail. Officials at LaRoche College in McCandless are also supportive of Abu-Snaineh. He's still a student in good standing.

There's little doubt Abu-Snaineh posed no threat to anyone, just like thousands of other Arabs and Arab-Americans rounded up by various law enforcement agencies in the wake of 9/11.

It's strange living in a time when people can be locked up just because of their country of origin. But it's also tough to figure out how a student from one of the targeted countries could forget to register.

Could Abu-Snaineh have been so consumed by his studies that he zoned on his appointment with the feds• Was he just na├»ve about how far American law enforcement agencies will go to fill jail cells• The United States recently earned the distinction of holding the largest per capita number of its citizens in jail than any other nation this side of Stalinist Russia, according to Human Rights Watch, the international prison watchdog group.

I'll bet many of the cells are filled by forgetful people -- those who forgot to obey the law, regardless of whether they agreed with it.

It makes sense to remember how far prosecutors and politicians will go to fill cells, whether you're Arab, black, Latino, an antiwar protester, a drug user or a member of any of the other groups of people now facing a stretch in government accommodations.

Freedom-loving Americans have to hope the ACLU wins the case to free Abu-Snaineh -- and that his memory improves. Just because politicians remember to build jail cells for us doesn't mean we have to forget about the law and fill them.

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