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The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is searching for a client to challenge the secrecy surrounding court hearings for Muslims detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service since Sept. 11. The ACLU has filed such a suit in Michigan state court as a joint plaintiff with a Muslim cleric, three newspapers and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. In that case, about 500 supporters of Rabih Haddad, founder of a Muslim charity that federal authorities suspect of funding terrorism, were turned away from his immigration hearing. “I will confirm that we have the same logic and are looking into it,” says Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU-NJ. Those clients could include any of a number of northern New Jersey newspapers. New Jersey would be a prime jurisdiction for a suit similar to the Michigan effort. Since Sept. 11, the vast majority of hearings for “Special Interest Cases” — Muslim men detained on minor immigration violations until they are cleared by the FBI of any connection to terrorist activity — have been held in secret inside Newark’s Peter R. Rodino Jr. Federal Building. Last Wednesday, the INS barred the New Jersey Law Journal from attending an uncleared detainee’s hearing but gave permission to attend a hearing this week for one who has been taken off the list. One of the attorneys assisting the ACLU’s search for cooperative clients is Regis Fernandez, a solo practitioner in Newark who has led an informal network of immigration attorneys who represent Special Case detainees. Among the difficulties in finding a client are fears among detained Muslims and their families that taking a high profile will lead to official reprisals. “The detainees for the most part want to play by the rules and cooperate and get cleared. And most of them don’t have compelling forms of relief,” says Fernandez, who has taken habeas writs as far as the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to release Muslim clients. Fernandez filed a separate mandamus writ in federal court in Newark against INS District Director Andrea Quarantillo Jan. 31 on behalf of detainee Khaled Musa, a Saudi-born ethnic Jordanian who is an Australian citizen. Musa arrived in the United States on a visa waiver program and overstayed by about five months while he worked in a store selling telephone cards. He was arrested Oct. 4 by the FBI in the post-Sept. 11 dragnet and has been in jail since. Musa has been cleared for deportation by the FBI, Fernandez says, but the INS has refused to clear him. Musa has provided the INS with a valid passport and does not contest his removal to Australia. At one point, “the INS was under the impression he was released on Jan. 28″ when he remained in jail, Fernandez says. Musa was moved to New Jersey’s Middlesex County Jail four days before Amnesty International was scheduled to visit him at the state’s Passaic County Jail two weeks ago, Fernandez adds. INS spokesman Kerry Gill says the agency does not comment on pending litigation. Word of the ACLU’s client search came the same week as it filed a motion for partial summary judgment in its suit against Hudson and Passaic counties for refusing to release the names of INS detainees held in those New Jersey counties’ jails. The ACLU is arguing that the facts — that the jail authorities have not released the names — are not in dispute and that therefore the only issue left is for a court to decide as a matter of state law whether the jails have to disclose the information. Passaic County will contest the motion, says County Counsel William Pascrell III. “I have had several meetings via conference call with the U.S. Attorney’s Office as with my colleagues in Hudson County,” he says. “Although we’re disappointed that the INS has released information that they previously prevented us from releasing … we are going to continue to honor the federal government’s request not to release this information until we’re told otherwise by a court of law or the federal government. … I guess the court will decide whether there’s an issue of factual dispute.” Hudson County Counsel Joseph Sherman also indicated he would contest the motion.

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