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Associated Press: Security Programs Strain Muslim-U.S. Ties

Washington, Feb 22 2006
Associated Press
Nabil Amen wrote it off as mistaken identity the first time U.S. border agents handcuffed him as he returned home from Canada. When he had border-crossing troubles a third time, he decided to never leave the United States again.
Amen, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Lebanon, is among a growing number of Muslim- and Arab-Americans who say they feel singled out by federal security practices that have chilled that community’s carefully nurtured relationship with the government.
Federal authorities insist they do not target Muslims or Arabs because of their religion or race, and stress their commitment to building ties with those groups, partly to help with terrorism investigations.
Yet recent disclosures of Bush administration domestic surveillance programs have put new strains on those communities’ ties with the federal government.
“There are several incidents and policies that are unfairly targeting Muslims because of who they are not because of what they did,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington.
Awad said the rapport built up with the government since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “is at its lowest point because of these programs.”
Federal authorities say their tactics are vital to preventing further attacks.
“All investigations conducted by the FBI are based either in intelligence or criminal information,” FBI spokesman Rich Kolko said. “We do this in our efforts to prevent or detect an act of terrorism on the country, which is the FBI’s No. 1 priority.”
Security experts say the government has to walk a fine line between protecting against terrorism and respecting people’s rights. Community leaders estimate that up to 8 million Muslims live in the United States, two-thirds of whom are U.S. citizens.
“The 9/11 hijackers were from the Middle East, they were Muslim, they were between 20 and 40 years old,” said David Heyman, homeland security director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Law enforcement can’t ignore this they’ve got an obligation to protect the public. But they must do so with care.”
Amen said he was told to step out of his car and was handcuffed the first time he was stopped, in December 2004, as he returned to his Dearborn, Mich., home after visiting relatives in Windsor, Ontario.
“The looks on my kids’ faces and my wife’s face it was unbelievable,” said Amen, 47. “It’s changed my whole concept of life in this country.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials would not comment on the specifics of Amen’s case.
“To take that type of action, we have got to have good reason,” said Kristi Clemens, the agency’s assistant commissioner.
After detaining and deporting hundreds of Muslims and Arabs immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, federal officials have tried to repair the relationship through dialogues with community leaders and sensitivity training for investigators.
But the rapport has been badly strained, the leaders say, by recent revelations of surveillance programs that target Muslim homes, businesses and mosques for terrorist links.
The monitoring is in addition to policies that Muslim- and Arab-Americans believe target them for extra scrutiny at airports and border crossings. Another irritant was the FBI’s canceling a program for helping agents relate better with the groups by teaching the investigators about their culture.
Since Sept. 11, 417 people have been charged in federal terrorism-related cases, resulting in 228 convictions or guilty pleas, according to the most recent Justice Department data. Justice spokesman Bryan Sierra said the department does not categorize arrests by ethnicity or religion.
Immigration data underscores the extra attention the government has paid to immigrants from predominantly Arab and Muslim nations since the attacks.
Between October 1, 2000, and September 30, 2001, the U.S. deported 589 immigrants to 20 nations around the Middle East and Central Asia. In the next 12-month period, beginning weeks after Sept. 11, deportations to those nations rose to 1,674 and peaked at 1,759 in 2003.
By last year, the number of deported immigrants to the nations had fallen to 1,167, according to Homeland Security Department data.
Still, counterterrorism officials say they try to alleviate Muslim and Arab community concerns by meeting regularly with local leaders.
“Over time, you get to know the people that you meet with,” said Brian Moskowitz, Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement top agent in Detroit, which has one of the nation’s largest Muslim and Arab communities. “It’s helped, in some cases, reduce the level of anxiety and fear in the community so that people will talk to us.”
Added Dan Sutherland, the department’s civil rights and liberties officer: “I know that there are peaks and valleys in the government’s relationship with these particular communities, but I really am convinced that we’re seeing a level of engagement that is going to grow over time.”
But a fresh chill has taken hold.
“We thought we had established a constructive working relationship with them,” said Kareem Shora, legal adviser for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “We definitely took a couple of steps back.”