Justice or vengeance?

Strange Days, Indeed

Immigration is not a problem to be solved. It is the sign of a confident and successful nation. And people who seek to make America their home should be met in that spirit by representatives of our government. New arrivals should be greeted not with suspicion and resentment, but with openness and courtesy.—President George W. Bush, 10 July 2001, Ellis Island, New York

The United States is a strange place. For all its rhetoric about how “we’re all from somewhere else” and “without immigrants this country couldn’t exist” there is still, at its core, a hatred of foreigners that runs so deep, it causes America to commit the same offense over and over again: persecuting those who are different at the very moment protection is needed the most. The instant America feels threatened, it lashes out. It was done to Chinese immigrants during the 19th century, the Japanese in the 20th century, and it’s being done to Arabs and Muslims in the 21st century. And in each instance, America was proven wrong. The people punished were not enemies. They were simply different from the people who had the power to condemn them.

Because the American Dream is far more powerful than the reality of the prejudice inherent in this culture, immigrants continue to arrive on these shores, regardless of how brutal the treatment. The American Dream—the pursuit of happiness, to live without fear; to express your thoughts and beliefs out loud; to worship freely—is palpable because it is beautiful…and true. Potentially. Its potential is what makes it still a dream yet one worthy of pursuit.

Shattered lives

The people most affected by this program aren’t talking. Their fear has rendered them speechless. We have heard instances of entire families, in the dead of night, simply up and leaving their homes, their belongings, their jobs, and fleeing to Canada; of women left with children to feed and no means of support because their husbands were detained or deported; of families whose children never lived anywhere but the United States have following their fathers to wherever he was deported; of families so frightened and ashamed of being caught up in this nightmare that, even though there is no food in their refrigerators, they refuse to ask their neighbors for help, because they believe their neighbors will think they are terrorists.

Is this the best they can do?

One of the provisions of the USA Patriot Act was that the INS create a system to weed out terrorists. Ashcroft’s interpretation of this was the National Security Registration system. On so many levels, it is a colossal failure. Its prime objective—locating those individuals who are a “national security concern”—can’t be met because people who are a national security concern have no intention of registering.

When out-of-status immigrants hear of the mass detentions and deportations, will it instill a sense of trust and a desire to come forth and register? Their fear will keep many away, thus turning them into exactly what Ashcroft already thinks they are: criminals. How is this helping the war on terrorism? We spoke with representatives from two of the most prominent Arab American Associations in the United States to determine what, if anything, is being done to stop these registrations.

Jean AbiNader, the Managing Director and COO of the Arab American Institute, is the President &CEO of IdeaCom, an international marketing strategy firm based in Bethesda, MD. He has extensive experience with foreign relations and international business development and was the President of the U.S.–Arab Chamber of Commerce from 1986 to 1993. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Are there Congress people or Senators who are actively opposed to the way the INS is conducting this registration program?

There has been a [letter] writing campaign directed at a number of members. We had Senators Feingold and Kennedy send a letter to Ashcroft. Congressmen Darryl Issa and John Conyers have spoken out against it. My guess is that there are more than those three or four members of Congress interested in it. Both from an ethnic constituency point of view and from a civil liberties point of view.

What has the AAI been doing and what have you accomplished?

We haven’t accomplished anything regarding the Federal government. We wrote to Ashcroft at the beginning of this program saying that the dates were unrealistic, he needed to meet with community leaders, and he should establish an outreach campaign. That went largely ignored except in the press. His press secretary, Jorge Rodriguez, claims they’ve done a lot, but they haven’t. Visa status problems aren’t law enforcement issues. They’re registration issues. Because the higher-ups at the Justice Department are treating it like a law enforcement issue, the people on the lower rungs feel a burden to act in ways that the INS normally doesn’t behave, and that is… to somehow make you feel that they’re going to deport you the next day… This is not what, traditionally, the relationship has been with the INS.

So, short of letter writing, your hands are tied?

Unless we can get Congress to do something, I don’t think the Justice Department is going to do anything…The only ways to do it are either through the courts, through lawsuits or by getting Congress to ask for the oversights, who’s monitoring it, etc. Is there any point in protesting? Absolutely. Everybody’s focused now on the 2004 elections and making sure their party gets in power. If they start agitating and mobilizing and saying to members of Congress, “you have people in your constituency being affected by this… Yes, they’re not citizens but it doesn’t matter.” … By the end of 2004, the beginning of 2005, all international visitors are going to have to go through this process except for countries that are exempt and those are primarily European countries and, like, Japan. That means all of Latin America, all of Asia, all of Africa, mostly, are going to have to go through this process. The situation is only going to get worse unless we build coalitions to stop this kind of negative behavior on the behalf of the Justice Department.

Tell the community exactly what they can do.

They must write to their members of Congress and say that they support national security but that this program is destroying trust between the government and the people they want most to help them in terms of combating the war on terrorism. Tell them to ask Congress to immediately ask the Justice Department to: 1) suspend the program; 2) report to Congress on what the results are and whether this program made any difference in terms of national security; 3) come up with a plan that meets the registration requirements but has flexibility in it for people who are out-of-status.

Why aren’t people protesting here the way they were in Los Angeles?

That’s what I’m asking myself. The Lebanese and Yemenis themselves should have 10,000 people who will have to be registered. What are they doing about it? If these guys are out of status, they’re not going to go on a demonstration. But what about the rest of the community? Are they putting their arms together and saying they have to defend their fellow countrymen?

I don’t hear anything. They have to show up for this. We don’t have much time.

Dr. Ziad Asali is the president of ADC. Born in Jerusalem, he received his B.S. and M.D. from the American University of Beirut. He has practiced medicine in Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, and the United States. He has served as the president of the Arab American University Graduates and as a member of the board of directors of the Council for the National Interest. He is also the current chairman of the American Committee on Jerusalem.

Are you currently helping people who have already been detained?

We have sent notices to all our chapters across the nation to go to the INS offices and provide on the spot assistance to anybody?with translations, provide legal help—whatever we can. The numbers we are dealing with now are overwhelming.

What are you doing to try and stop these programs?

We sued to stop this program in California. We are in consultation with so many other civil rights organizations…to try and formulate a strategy, both vis-à-vis the Justice Department and through public education. The fundamental purpose of this law is to fight terrorism… Each and every one of us should be in the anti-terrorism fight. The problem is that terrorists are not law abiding people and we end up with collective punishment by putting so many people in the most awkward positions: families, husbands and wives, employees, who are nowhere close to terrorism. These people are coming out to register and they end up being detained.

Are you in contact with any Congress people or Senators who are actively opposing this?

We have the support of Senators Feingold and Kennedy and Congressman Conyers who are out in public talking about this. We’re trying everywhere. We really do depend on the press to give this picture. …This wide brush that is being applied to these young people will not help us with this fight and aggravate enough people to maybe drive them over the edge. This is our concern.

Is ADC planning to communicate with Congress or the Senate to try and get more support?

We are outlining our series of contacts with the widest possible number of Congress people and Senators. We’re trying to figure out if we have further legal options we can pursue to put an end to this. No matter how well intended this law is, we must show that its impact is way more damaging than its potential benefit.

So you’re contacting Congress people, you’re contacting Senators, your legal department is overwhelmed, and you’re focusing primarily on outreach and education. Is there anything else that can be done?

This is part of a political reality. Whenever you have a discussion with anyone, they say, “Look, at the end of the day, all of the hijackers were all Arabs and Muslims. There is no great sympathy for these people.” This is very dangerous logic. We have experienced this with the Japanese during World War II and an apology was 40 years in coming.

A Return to the Rule of Law

We are asking for something that would be so easy for the INS to provide: compassion, humane treatment, and fairness. Register immigrants, for those who are out of status – penalize them but allow them the chance to straighten out their papers, and let them return to their lives. The benefits from dealing with immigrants (especially those with status problems) humanely and fairly far outweigh the disadvantages. It creates trust between law enforcement agencies and the immigrants, goodwill between our government and those of other countries, save thousands of hours of manpower and hundreds of millions of tax dollars, and spare this nation another humiliating and painful episode in its long history of the mistreatment of minorities.

If the INS policy, historically, was to deal with out-of-status immigrants by rounding them up and shipping them out, we would have little to say, but this has not been the INS’ policy. This nation was built by immigrants and it has always been understood that a good percentage of them were here illegally. This one “stain,” so to speak, was never seen as an indication of criminal intent. There have always been efforts by the INS to rectify those illegalities so as to make it possible for these individuals to become citizens. Why? Because immigrants are the backbone of this nation. Contrary to popular opinion, immigrants do not take jobs away from Americans, they stimulate the economy and often put 2nd and 3rd generation Americans to shame with their loyalty to the United

States and their proud displays of patriotism.

This futile, time consuming “manhunt” that we know is nothing more than a really excellent way of unleashing a bloodthirsty desire for revenge must be called off, otherwise, we may as well remove the plaque beneath the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”?Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, 1883

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