American Nightmare

After 9/11: The War on Immigrants

by Travis Morales, RCP supporter, member of La Resistencia, and participant in the Blue Triangle Network

Revolutionary Worker #1206, July 6, 2003, posted at

Immediately after September 11, waves of repression began breaking upon immigrant communities in cities and towns across the entire U.S.

Armed government agents rounded up thousands of men who had no connection with the 9/11 attacks. The men were taken from their jobs or businesses or rousted from their homes in the middle of the night. Their families, friends, and neighbors often didn't know why the men had been taken away or where they were being held--like those "disappeared" by U.S.-backed regimes in Chile, El Salvador, and elsewhere. They were subjected to abuse and degradation while in custody. At least one man--Rafiq Butt, an immigrant from Pakistan--died in detention.

Government officials from President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft on down thundered that they were in a relentless life-and-death struggle to root out terrorists. Making vague but threatening accusations, the government claimed that the arrested men were suspected of being active or potential terrorists. But not a single person arrested in the post-9/11 sweeps was ever charged with any actions remotely connected to the 9/11 attacks.

This ferocious onslaught was just the beginning of what has developed into a heartless, vicious, and continuously intensifying onslaught--an onslaught that has been a living nightmare for immigrants throughout the country. As the U.S. unleashed its war machine on Afghanistan and then Iraq; sent troops to Yemen, the Philippines, and other countries; and continues to threaten virtually the entire world -- it has also been relentless in attacking and suppressing immigrants, especially Muslim, Arab, and South Asian immigrants, within the U.S. borders.

Ominous and Dangerous Escalation

Even before September 11, the U.S. government had greatly stepped up its assaults on immigrants, focused most intensely on the southern border area. (See box "Deadly Border.")

Since 9/11 the government has pushed through a dizzying and broad array of laws, executive orders, and court decisions that are an ominous and dangerous escalation of the already deadly attacks on immigrants. This escalation has implications for all the people.

Today, Arab and South Asian communities live under a cloud of fear and suspicion. Anyone who professes to be a Muslim is regarded as a "potential terrorist." Thousands of people have been commanded into government offices to register and be interrogated by federal officials. FBI agents routinely visit mosques and keep tabs on who attends. The FBI has been cultivating snitches within the Islamic communities, trying to turn neighbor against neighbor and sow distrust within communities.

A reporter for the Detroit Free Press wrote, "The result is a massive, extraordinary network--with undercover agents infiltrating Arab and Muslim communities, street informants feeding information to investigators, and cooperative but wary community leaders acting as cultural guides into the local Arab world. The breadth of the probe is astounding. Every aspect of Arab immigrant life is being watched."

Hundreds of thousands of "legal" immigrant men from many Arab, Muslim, and South Asian countries have been ordered to undergo humiliating government registration. And when they complied with the order, they were treated brutally, and many were taken away in the middle of the night to prisons in distant, remote areas, unable to contact their families or lawyers.

More than 82,000 people have undergone this special registration, and the government intends to order all immigrants with non-residency status to register. Now, the government has announced that as many as 13,000 of those who have registered will be deported--not for any "terrorism"-related charges, but for often minor immigration violations.

The situation is chillingly reminiscent of what happened to more than 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War 2. As Rev. John Oda said at a recent press conference in San Francisco, "What is happening with the deportation of 13,000 individuals is wrong, unjust, immoral... My parents, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents were all interned during World War 2. They voluntarily cooperated with the U.S. government thinking that they would get fair treatment. They were thrown into concentration camps in the middle of the desert."

The political authorities and their faithful assistants in the mainstream media have whipped up a political atmosphere intended to cast suspicion on all men with Arabic and Islamic names and all women wearing the hijab.

Bush and others in his administration are threatening even broader and harsher measures. In March a U.S. ambassador sneered a warning to the Mexican government that there would be a price to pay for not fully and enthusiastically supporting the war on Iraq. As reported in the New York Times , the ambassador threatened that if Mexico did not vote in favor of a UN resolution backing the U.S. war, "it could `stir up feelings' against Mexicans in the United States. He compared the situation to that of Japanese-Americans who were interned after 1941, and wondered whether Mexico `wants to stir the fires of jingoism during a war.' "

Legal Measures Against Immigrants

To implement these crimes against the people and lay the groundwork for even larger scale assaults, the government has undertaken an extraordinary series of measures that go against some long-standing precedents in its own legal system. These measures include the following:

  • The Justice Department can now order secret hearings for "special immigration cases" that it claims "jeopardize national security." The chief immigration judge in the U.S., Michael Creppy, issued an order to all INS judges: If they had a case designated as "special," they were to hear it separately from all other cases; close the courtroom to family, press, and visitors; and not even confirm or deny that the case is on their docket. In other words, the federal government can detain immigrants without anyone even knowing that the person has been charged with something or is being held in the first place. People can thus be "disappeared" by the government. Ashcroft and his Justice Department has the sole power to designate a case as "special"--and such designation cannot be reviewed or challenged.
  • The Bush administration has essentially eliminated due process rights for immigrants, including those who are legal permanent residents. Previously, under U.S. law, no formal distinction was made between the rights of a citizen and non-citizen in the courts. Now, such long-established basic legal protections as the right to a lawyer, the assumption of innocence until guilt is proven, and lawyer-client privilege have all been undermined and virtually eradicated in immigration cases.
  • In April 2003, Ashcroft declared that undocumented immigrants can be detained indefinitely, without bond, in the name of "national security"--even if they are charged with no crime. He made this decision in the case of Haitian immigrants who had been taken into custody in Florida. Ashcroft defended this decision with insane arguments: that Haiti had became a "staging area" for terrorists attempting to come into the U.S.; that if Haitians weren't imprisoned without bond, others would be encouraged to try the treacherous voyage from Haiti to Florida, thus overwhelming U.S. "homeland security." This "precedent-setting" ruling by Ashcroft applies not only to all following cases but also to immigrants who had been previously released on bond. The Ashcroft decision also applies to all nationalities--except Cubans.
  • The federal government has detained immigrants as "material witnesses" in potential terrorism cases. These people are not charged with anything, but the government imprisons them until they either agree to testify against others or until the government decides they are "uncooperative" and finds or concocts something to charge them with. Material witnesses can be held for as long as the government wants. The government bars the public from attending their hearings and bars their lawyers from talking about them. Government officials have been ordered not to discuss material witness cases. As a legal analyst at the Center for National Security Studies said, "Jailing people who are simply under investigation is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime." Another civil libertarian pointed out that holding material witnesses had been originally intended or previously used only to ensure testimony--but "under this (the Bush/Ashcroft) interpretation, any one of us could easily be treated as a material witness--anybody who is suspected of anything. It could be the slightest of suspicion."
  • Ashcroft initiated a program in South Carolina and Florida that allows police and other state and local law enforcement agencies to arrest people on federal immigration charges. This, too, goes against long-standing policy and law, and enables--even encourages--local cops to pull over and question people who are violating no laws, based on their language, skin color, clothing, or whatever whim strikes them. Ashcroft's Justice Department argues that the police have the "inherent right" to do this kind of enforcement of immigration law and wants the program to be extended to every state.

These and many other measures are being instituted as national policy. They are not temporary. They are an essential component of the "new normalcy."

Walking the Streets in Fear

The anti-immigrant measures are now being used most aggressively against Muslim, Arab, and South Asian immigrants, but they apply and are intended to be used against all immigrants--and potentially against the population as a whole. They are part of a pervasive attempt to squeeze, suppress, and exploit immigrants at every turn. More than ever, the southern border has been turned into a death zone.

Subsidized corn from giant U.S. agricultural corporations is pouring into Mexico because of NAFTA, devastating the lives of impoverished Mexican peasants. But when these peasants try to cross into the U.S. to make a living in the fields or kitchens of America, they must contend with a hellish array of high-tech fortifications just so they can be in a position to stand for hours at a day-labor corner. Haitians who attempt to make the perilous journey across the sea in rickety boats now face a prospect of life in prison without charges in Bush's "compassionately conservative" America.

Last year Ashcroft announced the initiation of "Operation Tarmac" in the name of enhancing "security" at airports. In the ensuing months, hundreds of people of various nationalities were arrested at airports in cities across the country. They were all immigrants who worked in the lowest-paying jobs. And all were arrested for very minor immigration violations. Some had worked at their jobs--such as scooping ice cream in airport restaurants--for years. Some no longer worked at the airports--but were snatched when they were called back by deceitful bosses who promised them raises.

None of those arrested in Operation Tarmac were accused of having any "terrorist connections." But the government deported virtually all of them--ruining the lives of these workers and their families in the name of "national security."

In this climate of official suspicion and repression, racist and fundamentalist Christian forces have also had their leashes loosened. These right-wing forces have initiated a series of abusive and aggressive assaults aimed to frighten and outright attack anyone who (they think) looks Arabic or Islamic.

In Phoenix, explosives were thrown into the backyard of an Iraqi-American family. In Indianapolis an Afghanistani restaurant owner suffered severe burns after being attacked and set on fire in his own kitchen. In Chicago, a car bomb went off outside the home of a Palestinian-American family. A mosque in Chicago was set on fire after a racist DJ played a parody song with the hateful refrain "hunka hunka burnin' mosques."

The impact of these attacks on immigrant communities--particularly on the Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities--has been devastating. Many people, including many legal immigrants, are subjecting themselves to a sort of "self deportation"--moving out of the U.S. for fear that they will fall into the clutches of the government. Refugee centers in Canada are now overflowing with people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and elsewhere who have fled the U.S. These centers were originally set up to help refugees from Central America fleeing U.S.-sponsored wars and persecution in their homelands.

Others have remained in the U.S.--but find themselves feeling like they are constantly watched and treated like criminals solely because of who they are, where they are from, and what religion they practice. The government's policies and actions are deliberately forcing people to live their lives on the margins of the law.

A man from Bangladesh, living in New York, admitted to a reporter that he did not register when he was called by the government even though his lawyers advised him to do so. He explained, "In the last couple of weeks I've heard about so many people being arrested, and that they would be deported."

A 37-year-old Palestinian man told of being thrown in jail in Tampa, Florida, after he went to the authorities to register. Immigration officials didn't know how to deal with a Palestinian born in a refugee camp in Lebanon. So they simply arrested him, because the registration date for Lebanese immigrants had passed. He summed up the situation for himself and countless others: "We walk the streets in fear."

We Must Stop Them

It is imperative that the people persevere in building a powerful movement that takes on and defeats these attacks on the immigrant brothers and sisters.

The persecution and repression of immigrants is deeply woven into American history and society. But the current and escalating attacks--focused primarily for now on Muslim, Arab, and South Asian immigrants--are the most serious and ominous threat against immigrants in many years.

The government is instituting a series of highly repressive measures, comparable to those undertaken to put over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during WW2, backed up with a pervasive high-tech spy apparatus. The government has given itself the right to imprison people indefinitely without charges, drag people off to unknown prisons, and hold secret hearings. They are trying to create an atmosphere in which all immigrants, especially Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants, are looked at as a potential threat or enemy. And they are trying to get the population at large to support or go along with these vicious and fascistic attacks by fanning a sense of fear and by claiming the government is acting to "protect our security."

But the real threat to people's well-being comes from the war-mongering, police-state authorities in control of this society. The real danger to the people are those in power who have embarked on an open- ended war throughout the world and are instituting increasingly harsh measures of repression and control in the "homeland."

They must not succeed. The people must stop them.


Deadly Border

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, federal and many state and local authorities intensified their efforts to repress and control immigrants.

A series of walls from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California, was key in turning the southern border into a militarized zone. As a result of these and other murderous measures, immigrants have been forced to cross through increasingly remote and dangerous areas of the border as they try to get to the U.S. in search of work or to return to their families and loved ones.

Thousands of people have died in border crossings--perishing from dehydration in the Arizona desert or drowning in rivers and canals. The U.S. Coast Guard patrolled the seas and arrested desperate, starving immigrants from Haiti, China, and other countries.

Measures such as California's infamous Proposition 187 sought to deny immigrants and their children access to public resources, such as health care and education, and helped whip up an atmosphere that perversely blamed immigrants for any and all problems in society. California and Texas, with enormous populations of immigrants, enacted laws that effectively prevented many of the undocumented from getting driver's licenses, thus forcing them into a permanent status of illegality.

Through these and other actions, the authorities intensified their efforts to repress and control immigrants--even as the economy of the U.S. became more and more dependent on immigrants working in all sorts of jobs and increasingly in every section of the country, and as the business districts of many cities and towns were invigorated by immigrants.


Gestapo Tactics in Moscow, Idaho

In March of this year, the FBI carried out a raid on students at the University of Idaho campus in Moscow. I received an email written by a professor at the U. of I. College of Law describing the raid. She wrote:

"Yesterday was an exciting day in my small town. The FBI flew in 120 agents, fully armed in riot Moscow, Idaho to arrest one Saudi graduate student for visa fraud. The raid went down in the University of Idaho student housing at 4:30 in the morning, terrorizing not only the suspect's family but also the families of neighboring students.... At least 20 other students who had the misfortune to either know the suspect or to have some minor immigration irregularities were also subjected to substantial, surprise interrogations (4 plus hours) although none were detained or arrested yesterday. Now, however, a witchhunt is on for additional unnamed suspects who supposedly helped the guy who was arrested. The INS and FBI are working together, using gestapo tactics to question the students--threatening their immigration status, and hence their education, if they don't answer questions which are really aimed at the criminal investigation. They have also threatened their partners and spouses with perjury charges if they don't talk....

"Reading about this stuff is one thing. Having it happen in your backyard is another. The international students at the University of Idaho are terrorized and threatened."


INS Hell

These are stories of two among the hundreds of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants who have been rounded up by the government since 9/11.

Anser Mahmood is a 42-year-old truck driver who lived in Bayonne, New Jersey. Now he, his wife, and their four children live in Karachi, Pakistan, after Anser was deported by the U.S. government.

Anser was arrested in the sweeps shortly after 9/11. He was arrested in his home on October 3, 2001, when about 30 FBI agents showed up at his home and ransacked it. They claimed they were looking for Anser's brother-in-law, supposedly for credit card fraud. They told Anser that he was clear with the FBI-- but he was wanted by the INS for overstaying his business visa. They took him into custody. According to Anser, an FBI agent told him that he'd "be back home by 11 the next morning."

Instead, what he described as "that hell" began. He was chained hand and foot and loaded into a van with four other Muslim men. He was beaten til his face bled. A guard at a Brooklyn jail told him, "You're here as a World Trade Center suspect."

Anser Mahmood spend the next four months and two days in jail--in solitary in a windowless cell. For two weeks he couldn't communicate even with his family and lawyers. Closed circuit cameras displayed his every move to prison guards. There was no interrogation about why he was arrested or what his connection to 9/11 supposedly was. When he finally was able to try to call his family, the line was disconnected. At the Mahmood home, three windows were shattered by stone-throwing vigilantes.

Finally, on April 2, 2002, Anser was charged with a single criminal offense: using an invalid Social Security card. He pled guilty to taking off the "not valid for employment" label on the card so he could get a second job driving a cab. On April 19, Anser was escorted to a Pakistan-bound plane by INS agents.


Nabeel Khalid was preparing for a morning exam at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where he was studying business finance, when a troop of federal agents came to his door. They questioned Nabeel for three hours and led him away in handcuffs. When he told them he had an exam in two hours, they told him that was the least of his worries.

Nabeel was taken to the Oklahoma County Detention Center, where he was held in solitary in a tiny cell for almost a month. He was not charged with any crime. He was not allowed to call or write his family or to phone the Pakistani consulate. Federal agents argued that Nabeel should remain in prison but refused to explain why; they just claimed that this honors business student was a "threat to national security."

After three weeks, an immigration judge cited Nabeel's lack of criminal record and ordered that bond be set. But meanwhile, federal authorities had developed a pretext for holding and deporting Nabeel: they claimed he was in violation of his student visa, since he had worked part time at a convenience store.

A local Catholic priest read of the case of Nabeel Khalid and 17 other Muslims who were rounded up in Norman after 9/11, and he tried to see them in prison. "No one had told them anything," the priest said. "They didn't know why there were there, they didn't know when they would go to court, they didn't know they had a right to a lawyer--nothing."

The government began deportation proceedings against Nabeel because of his convenience store job. He agreed to voluntary departure, because he realized he would almost certainly be deported, go deeper into debt trying to defend himself, and not be able to finish his studies. Back in Pakistan, he told a reporter that his father is unemployed now and facing a very hard time. "The money that he had, I mean he spent all of it on me ... for an education."


This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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