For weeks, Kamal Nawash's clients were asking him: Should I do it or not? The Immigration and Naturalization Service has been requiring men who are not green-card holders and who came from countries regarded as potential sources of terrorists to come in and be registered, fingerprinted and photographed.

But they'd heard rumors, of the kind that can easily scare a newcomer. In Southern California, hundreds of immigrants gamely showed up, only to be arrested and detained. There was talk of sleeping on concrete, and no food and water.

Well, all 10 of his clients came into the Arlington INS office yesterday and all 10 got arrested. They were not people suspected of having any connections to terrorism. They hadn't committed a crime. In this case they were not even the classic case of immigrants who overstayed their visas. All of them had applications pending for a work permit and, ultimately, a green card. But because of Labor Department and INS backlogs, their papers hadn't been processed yet. So they, like dozens of other immigrants who showed up at the Arlington office, left it in shackles.

Nawash's clients were typical of those arrested in Virginia. They all had applied for work permits on a sort of amnesty issued in 2001. It was one of those times when lawmakers, as well as President Clinton, urged immigrants to come out of the closet even if they had worked here illegally. All they had to do was wait, patiently, while the INS processed their applications. And now here they are, two years later, legal papers pending, and they're in jail.

What, really, is the point of that? There may be some vague connection between keeping an accurate record of Middle Eastern men in this country and the war on terrorism. But this operation isn't about that. This instead has become one of those moments when we all have to be honest about the absurdity of American immigration policy.

Sometimes, usually in economic boom times, we allow winks and ambiguities, and then suddenly we don't anymore. And no matter how much lawmakers complain about the INS, they never reform it or boost its funding. Which must mean that at some level, we want it this way.

What happened in Virginia this week, or in Chicago or in any of the INS offices around the country, was not Los Angeles (where at least 200 Iranian visitors were arrested last month). Dozens of people got arrested at each office, not hundreds. But if the numbers are smaller, the theory is still off. Dawn Lurie brought in a client this week who had registered under the 2001 amnesty. He had a receipt from the INS and was a week away from getting his work permit. Still, he was arrested because INS agents said he must have been working illegally all this time.

Ahmad Gallba sat in the Arlington waiting room yesterday, too nervous to speak much or do more than bite his nails. He'd just seen a group go by in shackles and disappear behind a door. "I don't know about those guys," he said, hoping they were somehow shady characters, drug dealers maybe, stowaways, at least not like him with a work permit pending and a competent lawyer. One hour later he was their brother, handcuffed in a cell, calling his lawyer in tears.

The attorneys there were all rage and justice. They compared this fingerprinting to yellow stars, Japanese internment. "Racism, injustice, humiliation," said two protesters who had come to the waiting room to hand out bottles of water and apples.

For the clients this was a somewhat more introspective moment, when all the problems of an immigrant's split identity are suddenly in stark relief. Mohammed Basha was one of the more fortunate. He had a valid student visa and was now a senior at George Mason University. He had nothing to fear but a nine-hour wait.

Still, this was the culmination of a life-changing event for him that began with Sept. 11, 2001. Then, he'd been a student at Purdue University, studying business, partying at his frat. But after Sept. 11, the joking wasn't so funny -- "camel jockey" and all that. By now Basha can pass for American: James Patterson paperback, Lennon glasses, loves to pray but in the American way -- "for two minutes get some peace, relax, talk to Allah" -- and he smokes. But when the semester's over he's going right back to Yemen. "Fingerprinting? I'm thinking, I gotta go home. Who needs this?"

Basha is blase because he can be: He's college-educated; he'll have a good life in Virginia or Yemen. The most poignant cases are those in the gray zone, like Gallba's. Those who have applied for that amnesty and then showed up to register, even after L.A., really want to be here, and be here legally. The American dream to them is no cynical notion.

Kawal Mourad is such a person. He came to Virginia three years ago. Now he works the night shift at a print shop. He has a car, an apartment, a leather bomber jacket too thin for this frigid air. Mourad was detained last week for a few days and then was bailed out by his lawyer, but he's not complaining. "Three years. After three years, would you give it up?"

Even after he heard his friend Gallba was crying, he kept it up.

"It's my goal. It's my target," he said, as much to convince himself as anyone else.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.