Murry Weiss writes in the New York Post that cops in New York had to free a suspicious gang of illegal Middle Eastern immigrants because the INS “didn’t want to be bothered” on Memorial Day weekend. The police couldn?t figure out if they were the hard-working immigrants they claimed to be or a terrorist cell, so they had to let them go. They all admitted they were in the U.S. illegally and some of them had phony IDs. They could have been held if agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service had shown up.

“What’s the point of stopping vans and risking your life when the one agency with power blows you off?” says one of the cops. “And this is after September 11.”

“It’s frightening and disheartening,” says another. “The agency that handles immigration didn’t want to come down. They didn’t even want to be bothered.”

The INS didn’t have anyone available in New York City. The agency’s contact number for the weekend rang at an office in Burlington, Vermont, more than 300 miles away. “The f- – -ing INS has one phone working Memorial weekend and it’s in Vermont?” says one of the cops.

An INS spokesman says, “Since September 11, our primary focus has been on terrorist-related investigations and, contrary to belief, we are not in the business of detaining people without cause. These men posed no terrorist threat or, for that matter, any threat to the community.” But how did they know this if they didn?t check them out?

The case began about 4 p.m., when officers stopped a battered van from entering the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel from the Manhattan side. The red-and-white 1990 cargo van had four Middle Eastern men jammed in the front seat, one more than is legal. The commercial vehicle also bore only an address, 1006 Coney Island Ave., stenciled on its side, and not a business name, as required by law. Officer Chris Lasalle opened the rear padlocked door and found three more men inside.

The seven men, most of them from Pakistan, produced a variety of paperwork, including a phony government card obtained in Times Square, a false passport, an ID card from Virginia, and some New York nondriver IDs. They were taken to police headquarters in Brooklyn, where they were met by detectives from the NYPD Intelligence Division, the Joint Terrorist Task Force, the MTA, an assistant Brooklyn DA and interpreters.

The suspects said they worked for a construction company, Gill Waterproofing and Roofing in Brooklyn, to which the van was registered. Police called the INS, but no agents responded. Later that night, the District Attorney’s Office, without INS intervention, had to release the four men who had what appeared to be legitimate IDs. At midnight, detectives called again, but were referred to a toll-free INS number that connected them to the Vermont office, where a supervisor took their information and said a Manhattan supervisor would be notified by morning.

Early the next morning, INS supervisor Frank Ciringione called, promising to provide instruction later. When asked if he wanted to talk to the prosecutor handling the case, he said he didn’t. “They had a horrible attitude,” one cop says.

Three hours later, Ciringione called back and told ADA Jacqueline Kagan to free the other suspects, saying, “INS will follow up at a future date in our own way.” But by then most of the suspects were gone.

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