Enemy Alien

After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government adopted a policy of singling out and deporting all deportable persons in the United States from Muslim and Arab countries. Caught up in this dragnet, Palestinian activist Farouk Abdel-Muhti was arrested and detained for two years before a court ordered his release. In "Enemy Alien," a documentary about Abdel-Muhti’s case, director Konrad Aderer parallels the government’s post-9/11 policies to the Japanese American internments during World War II and follows the struggle of Farouk’s son, friends and lawyers in their effort to free him. 

Japanese American Internment and Post-9/11 Policy

It’s hard to ignore the similarities between the government’s internment policy during World War II and the government’s post-9/11 immigration policy. Both stem from a fear of disloyalty based on nationality and end in categorical expulsion. 

After the Pearl Harbor attacks, out of fear that some people of Japanese ancestry in America might be conspiring against the United States, the government removed 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from their homes and placed them in internment camps. This included 70,000 Japanese Americans who were U.S. citizens. Following 9/11, the government initiated the Absconder Apprehension Initiative and the Special Registration Program. Under the Absconder Apprehension Initiative (AAI), the government identified 314,000 immigrants subject to removal and deportation orders and sought first to apprehend and deport the 5,900 aliens from countries where Al Queda either operates or recruits. Under the Special Registration Program, aliens currently in the United States who were from 25 designated countries, only one of which was not a predominantly Arab or Muslim country, were required to register with the government. 

The aspects of the programs that targeted based on Muslim and Arab nationality were ultimately discontinued in 2003, but affected a number of Muslim and Arab nationals while they were in operation. The government arrested and detained 1,139 immigrants under the AAI. By May 2003, 803 of these “priority absconders” had been deported. By June 2003, the government had placed an additional 13,740 aliens in deportation proceedings under the Special Registration program. 

Farouk Abdel-Muhti’s Legal Battle

In April 2002, Farouk Abdel-Muhti, a Palestinian-born activist who was subject to a 1995 deportation order, was affirmatively sought out, arrested and detained by the Absconder Task Force. He was arrested about a month after he began working at Pacifica Radio station WBAI where he used his contacts to arrange interviews with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories on the morning radio program "Wake-Up Call." Following his arrest, Farouk was detained for over two years before a court ordered his release. Unfortunately, three months later Farouk died of a heart attack, having spent the vast majority of his last two years in detention.

Farouk’s history is not without its blemishes. Based on the court order opinion, he overstayed his visa when he first came to the United States and was deported. He nonetheless re-entered twice afterwards. At first his story about where he was born was inconsistent. He first represented to immigration officials that he was a United States citizen born in Puerto Rico before telling officials that he was born in Palestine. Following his final re-entry, he twice did not show up for court appearances when the government tried to deport him.  Farouk also had a few run-ins with the criminal justice system. He came to the attention of police in 1964, and again in 1965, for selling rugs and then neckties without a license. In 1972, he was observed writing on a subway poster. The police encounter escalated, and Farouk was charged with resisting arrest and other crimes, but ultimately convicted only of harassment. In 1993, Farouk pled guilty to attempted assault of his wife. 

But, these facts were legally irrelevant. Since he came to the United States for the final time in 1971, he consistently maintained that he was born in Palestine. Regarding his brushes with the law, the government never argued that he was being detained because he was dangerous. Ultimately, Farouk was released because of his unique status as a stateless man. As a Palestinian born in 1947 in the West Bank, a region whose control has been in a state of continual flux, he could not be deported, and could not obtain travel documents. In an interesting footnote, Judge Kane rebuked the government for muddying the issues and hinting that Farouk was dangerous without formally making the legal argument. Judge Kane noted that the government characterized Farouk as a criminal and referenced jail records that report anti-American statements and his attempt to make Muslim converts during his incarceration. Against the backdrop of a government policy premised on a fear of disloyalty of Muslim and Arab nationals, these references by the government and the fact that Farouk was arrested only a month or so after voicing Palestinian concerns on the radio cast doubt on whether the government’s formal assertion that Farouk “knowingly and actively hindered his removal” was the real reason the government persistently sought to detain him. 

Enemy Alien by Konrad Aderer

In Enemy Alien, Konrad adds a personal touch to Farouk’s story. Konrad interviews Farouk twice while in detention. In the film, Farouk emerges as a gentle but indomitable human rights activist who comes up against a paranoid state in the wake of 9/11. During Konrad’s first interview, Farouk speaks of how he insisted on his right to an attorney when he was first brought in for questioning. He explains how the officers responded by pushing him in the shoulder, knocking him off his chair and then beating him for fifteen minutes before letting him see his attorney.He engages in non-violent activism while in prison, organizing rallies and a hunger strike. Shortly after the hunger strikes, Farouk is placed in solitary confinement for eight months without any explanation. Farouk also speaks of being denied blood-pressure medication, of worms in his food, and of being forced to eat at gun point while an officer tells him that he’s lucky to eat a sandwich because he has to eat shit in his country. 

It isn’t until Farouk himself analogizes the treatment of Muslims and Arabs in America post-9/11 to the treatment of Japanese Americans in World War II that Konrad decides to delve into his own family’s history of internment. What follows is a minor story arc where Konrad learns about his grandparents’ experience in the camps. He interviews his grandmother, who tells a poignant story about the loyalty questionnaires used during internment, and Konrad discovers that his grandfather, like many Japanese Americans, snuck a camera into the camps to document the experience. Konrad draws a parallel between Farouk’s insistence on his rights and his grandfather’s insistence on documenting the internship experience, finding personal inspiration in both.

Interspersed throughout the film are also noteworthy moments that hint at the post-9/11 environment in America. Michael Wildes, a former mayor and federal prosecutor, looks positively annoyed to be bothered by the film-makers and smugly suggests that the Japanese internment might have been justified. During Konrad’s second interview with Farouk, INS officers refuse to allow Konrad to ask questions about confinement conditions. The INS confiscates Konrad’s tapes when he follows Tariq on a visit to his father in prison. 

Where the government underhandedly portrayed Farouk as an anti-American Muslim with an unclean record, the film portrays Farouk as a peaceful human rights activist. The film addresses the fact that Farouk was a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Farouk’s son Tariq speaks about his father’s beliefs: “He always makes a distinction between legitimate national liberation struggle and terrorism. He doesn’t believe in exporting the Palestinian struggle outside of its borders.” But, the film doesn’t address Farouk’s domestic dispute with his wife, which, at least at first glance, is at odds with the film’s portrayal of Farouk as a gentle man. And although the film suggests that we still have the capacity as a nation to do something as terrible as the Japanese internment, it doesn’t delve too deeply into the underlying similarities to the government’s post-9/11 policy, focusing instead on Konrad’s personal journey. That being said, few people are probably aware that after 9/11 the government singled out and sought to deport 5,900 Muslim and Arab nationals out of a possible 314,000 deportable immigrants.  The documentary serves an important function of bringing this policy to light and showing how it resulted in Farouk’s two-year detention.

Comments

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