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Ashcroft Offers Citizenship Aid In Exchange for Terrorist Tips

By Dan Eggen

The Justice Department announced plans Thursday to coax information about terrorists from foreign nationals by offering them help in obtaining legal residency or U.S. citizenship.

Unlike other anti-terror efforts launched since Sept. 11, which have included detentions of hundreds of people and possible deportation for violations of immigration laws, the new program provides tangible incentives to immigrants otherwise afraid to come forward with information, officials said.

Under the “Responsible Cooperators Program,” the rewards would be offered to non-citizens “who have useful and reliable information” about terrorists, according to a directive issued to the FBI, INS, and U.S. attorneys’ offices.

“They may rest assured that the United States welcomes any reliable and useful information that they can provide to help us save lives in the future,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news conference. “In return, we will help them make America their home.”

The program marks the latest tactic by frustrated U.S. officials who have sought to identify and capture terrorists and collaborators since the attacks on New York and Washington. A nationwide dragnet since Sept. 11 has ensnared hundreds of foreign nationals, but law enforcement officials and court papers indicate that only about a dozen, if that many, are suspected of involvement in Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.

Ashcroft, speaking on television shows early Thursday, said the plan would open a “pathway to citizenship” for participants. But many immigration experts said the steps were limited and that they would help relatively few foreign nationals become U.S. citizens.

James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, said that while he supports efforts to gather information, he fears the incentives might reward those with terrorist ties while punishing those with none. “We are deporting good people just because they’re out of status, but here we might be rewarding truly awful people because they’re involved with terrorists and have information to trade,” Zogby said. “I would like to see incentives, but they should be fair to everyone.”

In addition, Ashcroft has directed authorities to halt deportation proceedings and allow entry to foreign nationals if they have valuable information but do not qualify for an “S” visa. Such deferments could be granted indefinitely.