We Are Not Terrorists

Although the annual INS re-registration program has ended, some 14,000 people are going through deportation proceedings and countless others have had their lives destroyed without any formal steps taken by the government to repair the damage.

By 5 p.m. on April 25, 2003, the deadline for the fourth round of Special Registration, Room 310 of the Department of Homeland Security's office space in downtown Manhattan felt like an airport departure gate. The florescent lighting, the white walls, the hundreds of people sitting there with little to do. The Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Egyptian, Kuwaiti, and Jordanian men and teenage boys waited, waited, and waited. For those left, they wouldn't be flying out of New York that day. Most would walk out of that building, while some would be detained. The vast majority would be on airline flights within months as the result of deportation proceedings initiated that day.

Special Registration became notorious in immigrant communities on December 16, 2002, particularly in the case in Southern California, when between 500 and 700 Middle Eastern people from the Middle East, some as young as 16, were detained, strip-searched, and moved up and down the California coast. In the ensuing months, men and teenagers from 25 countries, all predominantly Muslim except North Korea, were asked to come in to INS offices to be fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated under oath--in many cases without an attorney present.

Most when they went to register with the authorities were not told that they would also be detained and consequently issued with Notices To Appear, the first step in deportation proceedings. Scott Dempsey, acting public affairs officer for the Newark Branch of the Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcements (ICE) told the New Jersey Herald News that 74,538 people had registered nationwide as of April 18. According to the Washington Post, almost 12% of those who registered as of March 26 were put into deportation proceedings. Advocates for immigrants are crossing their fingers that no new rounds of Special Registration will be added and that no new communities will be targeted.

Of the three communities that we worked with most closely at Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund--the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indonesian communities--the reactions were saddening and frighteningly similar.

A Bangladeshi woman from Texas described her anguish: "I have no way of making a living. My daughter came here when she was very young and now she's in high school, doesn't speak Bangla. If my husband is deported, what are we supposed to do?"

Indonesian members of a Queens, New York Baptist Church expressed similar sentiments to me when I asked them how they felt: "We are afraid, and we're angry."

With rumors flying about and a clear lack of effort by the Department of Justice and then the Department of Homeland Security to inform communities, the panic was very real and very understandable. Most of the people didn't understand why their communities were being targeted although all of the people I spoke with understood that they were being scrutinized because of their nationality, ethnicity, or religion. "We are not terrorists," one person said, stating what ought to be obvious.

The Pakistani community, a target of the Bush immigration policy since September 11th, has likely been hit the hardest. In Midwood, Brooklyn, the largest Pakistani neighborhood in New York City, stores closed down as owners, employees, and customers were detained, went back to Pakistan, attempted to seek refuge in Canada, or left the community for other reasons. Those that were turned away at the Canadian border were often detained by American immigration officials, their families left to live in shelters and emergency housing.

Through Special Registration, the Federal Government has now compiled computerized records on upwards of 80,000 people from predominantly Muslim countries and has also begun proceedings to remove nearly 10,000 of them from the country. Moreover, since those registered are required to reappear in one year, if they fall out of status in that time, they too may be put into deportation proceedings. Additionally, because individuals who did not register have now committed a criminal violation (versus a civil violation like overstaying a visa or not taking enough classes on a student visa), there are countless others who may be put into the National Criminal Information Center Database, used by law enforcement agencies around the country, and thereby picked up by local or federal law officials. The use of local law enforcement to enforce immigration law is highly controversial. By turning visa overstays and similar civil violations into the criminal offense of not registering, the Special Registration policy is able to circumvent arguments about whether local police should be detaining people for overstaying their tourist visas or not taking enough classes at the local community college instead of stopping muggings and burglaries.

While particularly notorious and extreme in its effects on the communities the policy targets, Special Registration is just one of a seemingly constant stream of anti-immigrant policies that have emanated from the Bush Administration since September 11th. Between the "Special Interest" detentions of South Asian, Muslim, and Arabs to the Special Registration, those who were paying attention witnessed: the so-called "Voluntary Interviews" of thousands of Middle Eastern men by the FBI; a directive from the immigration courts that makes it now legal to detain non-citizens for a "reasonable period of time" in times of national emergency; the Absconder Initiative which is seeking out and attempting to deport 5,900 people from particular countries who have outstanding deportation orders; raids on Pakistani-owned jewelry kiosks; Operation Gameday, or, raids on security and taxi industries in San Diego before the Superbowl; Operation Tarmac, or, raids on airport workers; Operation Liberty Shield, or, the detention of asylum seekers from 33 countries; efforts to increase collaboration between local and federal law enforcement; a decision to enforce a rule requiring non-citizens to report a change of address to the government within ten days; and a blacklist preventing or targeting certain people on commercial flights. Of course, these are only some of the publicly disclosed government policies. Moreover, these policies do not include the new legal restrictions that the Patriot Act has instituted and Patriot Act II, not yet introduced, may worsen, or recent court decisions like Demore vs. Kim, which legalized mandatory detention for entire classes of non-citizens, denying them the opportunity for a bond hearing.

In other words, this is a crisis moment in history for non-citizens in the United States, similar to the Palmer Raids and the Japanese Internments of World War II. Since September 11th, the Bush Administration has built on an already draconian legal framework of immigration law, most notably the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Non-citizens already were not entitled to a lawyer in so-called immigration court, which is really an administrative court under the jurisdiction of John Ashcroft. Non-citizens were not entitled to hear Miranda rights before they are questioned. Non-citizens already were technically deportable for a whole variety of minor offenses, ranging from the ten-day address change requirement to not carrying a full course load on a student visa to shoplifting. The post-September 11th policies have taken an already unfair system and made it much, much worse. In most cases, they have done so in a discriminatory way. Using the justification of "al-qaeda presence" in countries or "state [sponsorship] of terrorism", the Bush administration has targeted not just Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Arabs, but also people from Eritrea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, Iran, North Korea, and countless other countries.

The attacks on South Asians and others for the past two years point to the increasing importance of organizing our communities at a grassroots level to effectively combat the government's tactics. For example, witness the Armenian community, which was able to remove itself from the list of Special Registration countries in a 24-hour blitz of political pressure on the White House.

However, despite the blatant profiling, the more important lesson for the South Asian immigrant communities and their advocates may be that what is happening to our communities is not happening in isolation. For example, published reports indicated that Latinos were detained in Wisconsin after routine traffic stops and two people mistakenly apprehended for the Sniper murders were cleared of involvement in that case but put into deportation proceedings. Similarly, the abuses of the "War on Terror", the use of increasingly rigid interpretations of the law and selective enforcement, should recall the experiences of other people of color who are targeted through the "War on Drugs." It is worth remembering in these times that the passage of the 1965 immigration law which removed racial barriers preventing South Asians from entering the U.S. was part of a broader civil rights agenda. A response to today's reactionary regime requires a new civil rights movement that will also work towards the rights of all non-citizens, communities of color, women, LGBT communities, and other disempowered groups. It is not just the most responsible way for South Asian immigrant communities to protect themselves and their rights--it is the only way.


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