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Testimony: Overseeing Impact Of Antiterrorism Initiatives On Immigrant Communities in NYC

Testimony Of Udi Ofer On Behalf Of The New York Civil Liberties Union Before The New York City Council Committee On Immigration
Regarding Overseeing Impact Of Antiterrorism Initiatives On Immigrant Communities

I am Udi Ofer, 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 our state’s leading advocate on behalf of New Yorkers’ civil rights and civil liberties as articulated in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York.

I present testimony today to urge the New York City Council and Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to begin overseeing the impact of antiterrorism initiatives on members of the Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities in New York City. There is a tremendous amount of evidence detailing civil liberties violations by federal government officials against members of the Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities. These infringements on civil liberties and civil rights have been conducted in the name of national security. It is the duty of New York City government to inform itself on what has been happening in its own city.

In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the government reacted with extraordinary speed to create 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 individual privacy, lawful political expression, and due process of law. Government officials have been conducting detentions without charges, perusing personal records and monitoring private communications without legal basis, engaging in widespread ethnic and religious profiling, and conducting secret judicial proceedings.

These new powers have impacted New York City residents in particular. The Inspector General’s Office of the Justice Department has issued several reports detailing 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 articles on this issue. Yet New York City government is glaringly absent.

The New York City Council already expressed its concern over civil rights and civil liberties violations in the fight against terrorism. On February 4, 2004 the Council passed Resolution 60, which calls upon government officials to protect civil rights and civil liberties when prosecuting the fight against terrorism. Resolution 60 expresses opposition to racial, religious, and ethnic profiling; secret detentions of persons without charges or access to counsel; and it calls upon federal officials to make periodic reports on its use of antiterrorism powers in the City of New York.

The New York City Council and Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs have the responsibility of keeping itself and the public informed on what has been happening to New York City residents in the name of national security.

I will now briefly summarize the factual record that gives rise to the need for oversight over the impact of antiterrorism initiatives.

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 as direct suspects of the September 11 attacks based principally, or solely on their religion, ethnicity or national origin. All were cleared of terrorism charges, but yet were held for months for minor civil violations of immigration laws, such as not filing a change of address within 10 days.

Initially many of the 9/11 detainees were held under a communications blackout, and prohibited from receiving telephone calls, visitors, or mail. Family members of the 9/11 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, as documented by a Justice Department report: 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 doesn’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.

The role of the City Council and Mayor’s Office in protecting 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.

The New York City Council and Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs must oversee the impact the fight against terrorism has had on immigrant communities in New York City. The Council and Mayor’s Office must investigate the impact by going into the communities and speaking with residents and community advocates. Many members of the Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities feel alienated from civic life, and rightfully feel alienated by government policies implemented in the name of national security. However, these policies do not make us any safer. Only by keeping itself informed on these issues, will New York City government be able to respond with appropriate legislation and policy.

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