In the year after 9/11, the FBI detained over 1200 Arabs and Muslims living in the United States as part of its official investigation into the attacks. This investigation, popularly referred to as the “Dragnet” to highlight its pervasive and indiscriminate nature, focused on people the FBI claimed had suspected links to terrorist activity. The majority of those detained were immigrants living in the United States; the rest were largely American citizens detained on minor criminal charges not related to terrorism. According to a report by the Office of the Inspector General, the detainees were overwhelmingly Arab or Middle Eastern.
Detained individuals were often targeted for highly superficial reasons. Actions as innocuous as expressing an interest in learning to fly planes, developing rolls of film featuring the World Trade Center, or simply being in the presence of another suspected individual at the time of arrest were considered adequate grounds for detention. Individuals who shared common names with known terrorists were detained without any other wrongdoing. As one FBI official quipped, “The only thing a lot of these people are guilty of is having the Arabic version of Bob Jones for a name.”
In initiating detentions, the FBI encouraged Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) to bring trivial, pretexual immigration charges against these individuals in order to prolong their detention. The FBI also required INS to keep an individual detained until the FBI had “cleared” them—even if immigration charges had already been resolved or a court had already ordered deportation. This “clearance” process took an average of three weeks.
“Dragnet” detentions and ensuing immigration proceedings were ordered secret. So total were these restrictions that an immigrant’s family members could not be told where or for what reason their loved one was being held. To this day, it is unclear who or how many people were detained.
Despite the aggressive nature of the investigation, no terrorism-related charges were ever filed as a result of these detentions.
The Absconder Apprehension Initiative
The Absconder Apprehension Initiative of 2002 was a similar directive issued by Attorney General John Ashcroft in which the names of over 300,000 “absconders”—aliens in violation of their visa terms—were turned over to local police forces. Law enforcement was advised to “locate, apprehend, interview, and deport” these immigrants, beginning, per the Attorney General’s request, with 6000 immigrants “who come from countries where there has been Al-Qaeda presence or activity.” Over 2500 “absconders” were detained as a result, though it is unknown if the remaining aliens from non-Al-Qaeda countries were ever targeted.
The National Entry-Exit Registration System
In September 2002, the Attorney General announced the National Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which altered immigration procedures by placing “special” registration restrictions on immigrants entering the United States from certain countries. NSEERS provided automatic registration for nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria, as well as those from countries that the State Department or Department of Homeland Security considered an “elevated national security risk.” Of the final list of 25 countries, only one—North Korea—was not of Arab or Muslim majority. Immigrants subject to these registration requirements were fingerprinted, photographed, and forced to maintain regular contact with INS on pain of criminal arrest. By the time the law was abandoned in 2011, over 93,000 immigrants had been forced to register, and 1200 people had been detained for violations.
In its coverage of the Department of Homeland Security’s announcement to indefinitely suspend NSEERS, the American Civil Liberties Union described the policy as “mandat[ing] ethnic discrimination on a scale not seen in the United States since Japanese-American internment during World War II.”
Additional immigration statistics
Between September 2001 and September 2002, detentions and deportations of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries—particularly Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia—had nearly doubled or tripled. In that same period, total detentions and deportations decreased by around 20 percent.
 Federal Register Vol. 76, Number 82, pp. 23830-23831 (April 28 2011) http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-04-28/html/2011-10305.htm