Pakistani Detainees Speak Out

“We are not criminals, but we are treated as such. We do not even know what the future holds for us. We are not certain whether we will ever be freed, deported or remained jailed.”

The man being treated like a “criminal” is one of about 200 Pakistanis being held on immigration violations in the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, New Jersey. For the first time, civil liberties and immigration lawyers say, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is selectively enforcing its laws, not to control immigration but to pursue a criminal investigation. Nor are the laws enforced always so clear.

“The judges are not judges anymore,” basing decisions on their judgment of the law, says Sarah Hogarth, director of the National Lawyers Guild’s 9/11 project. “They are just taking instructions from the INS.” Judges who do make their own decisions, reports the New Jersey Law Journal, may find their decisions overturned by the INS or Justice Department.

“We’re seeing the strictist—overly strict—application of INS laws to keep people detained,” said Claudia Slovinsky, Esq., an immigration lawyer who is representing several detainees.

“Immigration statutes are the mechanism used to hold people while [the US government] performs terrorism investigations,” said Manny Vargas, Esq. Vargas is a lawyer with the Immigrant Defense Project, New York State Defenders Association. He explained that this development is particularly dangerous because, while the criminal justice system guarantees rights to those accused of crimes—“especially the right to counsel,” those rights “are not particularly attached to immigration proceedings,” he said.

Detainees are brought into closed hearings in full leg irons with hands shackled to their waist, report their lawyers. Guards unshackle a hand only to allow a prisoner to take an oath. Conditions in the cells are even worse, report detainees. A man held in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn told his paralegal they suffer from 23 hour lockdown, lights blaring at all hours, no toilet paper, full strip searches, verbal abuse from guards…The Paterson detainee asks, “Why me?”

“There are around 2 million Mexicans and others who can be arrested on the same grounds.” he said. “It must be because I am a Muslim.”

Some immigration lawyers agree. Many of those detained have been picked up on the authority of anonymous FBI tips, Claudia Slovinsky said. She called the detentions “racial profiling.”

The detained man also feels abandoned by his own country, charging that the Pakistani consul neglects his countrymen who languish in American prisons. [In an interview with the New York Times on December 20, the Pakistani vice consul reports visiting detainees but admits being “in the dark” on about 100 cases.]

Consulates have enormous power to defend the rights of their nationals, working with U.S. lawyers. With the help of a paralegal, the Canadian consulate in December pressured the INS to act on the case of a Pakistani-Canadian doctor arrested for illegally reentering the United States. Without consular support, Pakistani nationals may face even more trouble resolving their cases.

As many as half of those in detention are in Pakistan, according to U.S. Justice Department data analyzed by Mae Cheng in Newsday on Dec. 17th. Of the 563 cases on which the Justice Department released information, Cheng counted 204 Pakistanis.

“When I’m visiting, it does seem the largest country is Pakistan,” confirms Subhash Kateel of DRUM, a South Asian advocacy group working with about 20 detainees and their families. “The second seems to be Egypt and the third seems to be India.”

Even three months after September 11th, the INS continues to sweep largely South Asian neighborhoods for immigration violations, says Kateel. South Asian students here on H-1 visas are being visited and interviewed by the FBI.

“Neighborhoods like Midwood (in Brooklyn) have been hit really hard, with the INS just picking people up. Elmhurst and Flushing, Astoria, Paterson and Jersey City too,” says Kateel.

Even little-known, or previously unenforced, laws are now being cited as INS officials work more closely with law enforcement officials to detain non-citizens, say immigration lawyers. “For example, it’s little known that non-citizens must report any change of address within 10 days,” said Vargas.

With hundreds of people being detained, many without legal counsel, overworked human rights and civil liberties organizations recently met to better coordinate their legal support for the detainees. In mid-December, civil liberties groups held two meetings, one in New Jersey and one in New York City to plan their efforts. In attendance were lawyers and others from The American Civil Liberties Union, Legal Aid Society, Center for Constitutional Rights, American Immigrant Lawyers Association, Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants, National Lawyers Guild, and Human Rights Education &Law Project (HELP), a New Jersey group formed after September 11th to provide legal support and advocacy for detainees.

“Regionally we’re attempting to divvy up tasks amongst the different legal organizations,” says Hogarth of NLG, who planned the New York meeting. “We want to identify who’s in detention, see who doesn’t have lawyers and refer them to one. We don’t have enough lawyers so we also want to identify and train them, and mentor them with more experienced lawyers.”

Detainees have the right to a lawyer, but they do not have the right to a free lawyer, says Hogarth. That’s why the organizations are referring detainees to lawyers who will work for free. Because a detainee’s access to a phone is severely limited, immigrants should carry a lawyer’s phone number at all times so they easily call for help.

Two important hotlines are now in operation. Those visited and questioned by the FBI can now call the ACLU to secure a lawyer in the (212-344-3005 x226, x224 or x240). At its hotline, HELP is accepting collect calls from detention centers and connecting detainees up with lawyers (973-676-5660).

The lawyers’ work is cut out for them, not the least because the federal government is keeping two lists, a public list and a secret one. MacDonald Scott, a legal worker with the Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants, encountered the list while representing Shakir Ali Baloch, the Pakistani-Canadian doctor. Scott found Dr. Baloch on the MDC prison roster one day, and told his wife in Canada to fly down, only to discover once she’d arrived that her husband had been removed from the list. Dr. Baloch had not yet been released, only made invisible by the secret list.

“Families should know that when they call that they might not be told,” says Hogarth. “Also, if people are looking for people, chances are they are in New Jersey. HELP is maintaining lists of detainees in New Jersey. They are a good place to call.”

The INS also moves detainees without warning, making it difficult for lawyers and supporters to find them again. “The legal community is running around,” says Hogarth of NLG. “We can’t even find our clients!” Subhash Kateel of DRUM says their volunteers have lost track of about 5 of the 20 detainees they have been working with.

Even minor violations of immigration law by those in the country legally can lead to a prolonged detention in the new post-September 11th world – detentions lasting two to three months. Abdul Sattar was taken into custody with two roommates from his home on Webster Venue in Brooklyn. Although his 1993 application for political asylum is under review, he was nabbed because his work permit expired a few months ago. He was held 48 days in the Passaic County Jail before being released on bail on Nov. 19.

“The majority of the Pakistanis detained in the Paterson Prison are willing to be deported and return to Pakistan. Yet they cannot because of the slow pace of INS,” says Sattar.

After September 11, the INS extended the period of time non-citizens can be held for questioning, and permitted indefinite detention in “emergency” situations. The INS also adopted a rule allowing it to detain non-citizens even after an immigration judge orders their release for lack of evidence.

Moreover, all non-citizen detainees questioned in connection with Sept. 11 must pass now an FBI security clearance to be deported, even if they choose to return to their native countries. This process is delaying some people’s release from prison, immigration lawyers say.

And the federal government took on the power to monitor the communication between a federal detainee and his or her lawyer if the government believes their discussion may support terrorism.

The ACLU, NLG, Human Rights Watch, Council of American-Islamic Relations and others have denounced the new rules as subverting civil liberties and called for the release of information on those in detention. To date, the U.S. Attorney General has released only the country of origin of certain detainees, not their names, nor their location, nor the charges against them, as these groups requested in court. In late October, Human Rights Watch requested that the INS release information on any medical screening or support given Muhammad Butt, the Pakistani national who died while in detention in a New Jersey jail. The agency refused without a signature from the deceased man on the grounds of protecting his privacy.

Additional reporting by Huma Ali.

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