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Finding Visa Abusers

Many innocent men of Middle East origin living in the US have found themselves under one cloud of suspicion after another since Sept. 11. Now the federal government is adding one more.

Soon local police will have access to federal computer lists with the names of foreign visitors who have overstayed visas and who are to be deported. First on the list are some 6,000 men - be they Arab, Muslim, or not - who come from nations with active Al Qaeda groups.

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It seems natural, in the effort to prevent terrorist attacks, to link immigrants who defy deportation orders with those countries that haven't yet broken up terrorist rings. Any statistician would support such reasoning.

But other factors need a hearing.

Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers had valid visas. One would-be plane bomber captured last month was British. And, against all stereotypes, one American was found supporting Al Qaeda while serving the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Questions also must be raised on why the Immigration and Naturalization Service waited until now to let law-enforcement officials have access to the names of some 300,000 immigrants ordered deported (most from Latin America). And why not put resources into entering all those names into a computer quickly, rather than making an unnecessary choice to target men from the Middle East first?

The INS could have avoided creating an impression of a two-tier system of justice simply by acting smarter.