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The Impact of Antiterrorism Initiatives on Immigrant Communities

Testimony of Udi Offer on behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union before Most Rev. Nicholas Dimarzio, Bishop of Brooklyn and Queens, regarding the impact of Post-9/11 Antiterrorism Initiatives on New York’s Immigrant Communities

My name is Udi Ofer. I am an attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and director of its Bill of Rights Defense Campaign. The NYCLU is the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. Since 1951, the NYCLU has been New York State’s leading advocate on behalf of New Yorkers’ civil rights and civil liberties as articulated in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York. The Bill of Rights Defense Campaign (NYBORDC) was created by the NYCLU to respond to post-9/11 government antiterrorism initiatives that erode civil rights and civil liberties. It is a project of the NYCLU in coalition with over 100 organizations.

I present testimony today on the impact of post-9/11 antiterrorism initiatives on New York’s Arab, Muslim and South Asian immigrant communities. Since September 11, 2001, and in the name of protecting national security, we’ve witnessed an assault on the basic rights and freedoms of members of the Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities in the United States and in New York City. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that while these polices have devastated immigrant communities in the United States, they have done little, if anything, to protect our national safety. As concluded by the government commission investigating the September 11th attacks, “immigration policies promoted as essential to keeping the country safe from future attacks have been largely ineffective, producing little, if any, information leading to the identification or apprehension of [suspected terrorists].”

In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the government created expansive new police powers in the effort to combat terrorism. It is now well documented that these new powers – authorized by the USA PATRIOT Act, presidential directives, F.B.I regulations, court rulings, and more – have seriously undermined long-recognized constitutional protections afforded to individual privacy, lawful political expression, and due process of law. Government officials have been conducting detentions without charges, engaging in widespread ethnic and religious profiling, perusing personal records and monitoring private communications without legal basis, and conducting secret judicial proceedings.

These new powers have impacted New York City residents in particular. In several reports issued by the Inspector General’s Office of the Justice Department, Inspector General Glenn Fine documented instances of civil liberties and civil rights abuses against New York City residents in the hands of federal authorities. In the Midwood section of Brooklyn alone, the Pakistani government estimates that 15,000 have left for or been deported to Canada, Europe or Pakistan. Stores report business being down by 40 percent, and the local mosque being one-third empty, after previously being overcrowded during Friday prayers. The Washington Post, New York Times, and the Village Voice have all written on this matter, yet local, state, and federal government has done nothing to respond.

I will now briefly summarize the factual record that gives rise to the need for community leaders to understand and respond to the impact of antiterrorism initiatives on New York’s immigrant communities.

Detention of Arab, Muslim and South Asian men

In the days, weeks, and months following September 11, federal agents rounded up hundreds, if not thousands of Arab, Muslim and South Asian men, holding many for weeks without charges, in solitary confinement, and treating them as direct suspects of the September 11 attacks. The round-ups and detentions were based principally, or solely on religion, ethnicity or national origin. All of the detainees were eventually cleared of terrorism charges, yet the average detainee was held for 80 days, often on minor civil violations of immigration laws, such as not filing a change of address within 10 days of a move.

Initially many of the September 11 detainees were held under a communications blackout, and prohibited from receiving telephone calls, visitors, or mail. Family members of the September 11 detainees in many instances did not find out what happened to their relatives until weeks following the detentions. They describe their family members as having disappeared. The communications blackouts ranged from several days to several weeks.

Consider the following example, as documented by the Justice Department report on the September 11 Detainees: on September 15, 2001, the New York Police Department stopped three Middle Eastern men in Manhattan for a traffic violation. The men were arrested after officers searched their car and found construction plans for a public school. The next day the men’s employer confirmed the men’s employment at the school, and told federal authorities that it was appropriate for the men to possess the school plans. Nonetheless, the men were detained and subjected to prolonged detention and treatment as direct suspects of the September 11 attacks.

Not only were family members unable to find out where their relatives were held, but detainees were denied access to counsel. When lawyers or family members called the Bureau of Prisons to inquire whether a particular person was housed there, staff workers denied that person’s presence in the facilities, even if they were indeed housed in the prison. Many detainees reported that they were denied legal calls, and phone logs confirmed the accusations. Sometimes guards walked by a cell and asked, “are you okay?” If the detainees responded “yes,” then the guard interpreted that as the detainee stating that he didn’t need to place a legal phone call.

On June 2, 2003, the Inspector General’s Office of the Justice Department released a report on 762 of the September 11 detainees. The report found that the FBI’s interest in the detainees “often was based on little or no concrete information tying the detainees to the September 11 attacks or terrorism.” And according to the Inspector General’s report, detainees held at the Brooklyn facilities were subjected to “a pattern of physical and verbal abuse.” Complaints of physical abuse ranged from painfully tight handcuffs to allegations that they were slammed against the wall by prison staff. Verbal abuse included taunts such as “you’re going to die here,” and “you will be here for 20-25 years like the Cuban people.”

Ethnic and religious profiling

Federal agents have been employing ethnic and religious profiling on a widespread basis since September 11. Thousands of people of Arab, Muslim or South Asian descent have been detained, interrogated, fingerprinted, or subjected to deportation proceedings based principally, or solely, upon national origin or religious belief. Under the National Security Exit-Entry Registration System (NSEERS), also known as the special registration program, males age 16 to 45 from 25 Arab, Muslim and South Asian countries who came into the United States on temporary visas and who still have nonpermanent status in the United States were made to register with the United States government. Registration included being fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned under oath by INS officers.

Over 82,000 men voluntarily complied with the special registration program, and more than 13,000 were placed in deportation proceedings. Yet the program yielded no charges of terrorist activities against any of the men who registered, but did yield serious violations of civil rights and liberties. Scores were detained for days because of immigration bureaucracy that prevented the INS from verifying their legal status in the United States. An example is the case of Mohammad Sarfaraz Hussain, a high school student in Queens who was placed in deportation proceedings after fulfilling his registration requirement. Mr. Hussain was a varsity basketball player, with four U.S. citizen siblings. He filed a green card application with the INS in April 2001 that was still pending. Only after Congressman Ackerman become involved did immigration authorities stop the deportation proceedings.

While parts of the Special Registration program have been suspended, thousands of families today still face deportation because of the harsh consequences of the program. It is vital that community leaders educate government officials on the program’s devastating impact on immigrant communities in the United States.

The role of community leaders in advocating for New Yorkers’ rights and liberties

The people of New York City have suffered deeply from the catastrophic events of September 11. Many new Yorkers have also been grievously harmed by the overzealous and misguided police actions that followed.

Community leaders must work with government officials to respond to the devastating impact of post-9/11 antiterrorism initiatives. Leaders must ensure that city officials investigate the impact by visiting targeted communities and speaking with residents and community advocates. It is time for our nation’s leaders to understand that similar to past government responses in times of crisis—when immigrants of Italian, Russian or Japanese descent were targeted by overzealous policies—members of the Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities today are the needless victims in the struggle to protect our nation’s freedom. Yet civil liberties and national security do not conflict. There is a way to be both safe and free.

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