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Immigration Backlash: Labor Migration in Crisis

My message to you today is that through a series of new policies and practices introduced since the appalling terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, our government has, in a subtle but insidious way, re-introduced an element of ethnic discrimination into our immigration policies and law enforcement practices. I will demonstrate this to you by tracing a thread through several new practices, each one of which could be rationalized or tolerated as an aberration when taken on its own, but which, taken together, amount to a pattern of ethnic discrimination that should be troubling to all Americans.
Everyone agrees that homeland security is an important priority in the wake of these despicable attacks, and everyone also agrees that due attention should be given to reforming the process by which visitors to the United States come into and stay in our country. Our point is that these practices need to be “color-blind,” so to speak, and that they must not be allowed to reflect a pattern of official bias. I have in mind particularly four practices that reveal a consistent pattern of thought that amounts to systematized discrimination.
The first of these is the secret detention, in facilities around the country, of hundreds of men, mostly Arabs or other Muslims. These people are not accused or even suspected of involvement in any form of terrorism or having knowledge of any form of terrorism. They are simply Arab or Muslim men picked up since 9/11 who are in some way, including extremely trivial ways, out of status. The policy of the INS, as expressed in these detentions, seems now to be that if you are an Arab or Muslim man who is out of status in any way what so ever, you will be detained indefinitely without bond and deported. Other non-citizens with similar technical visa problems are not being incarcerated in this draconian manner or deported for trivial reasons.
The case of the Pakistani man, Ansar Mahmood, whose unjust deportation was the subject of a blistering editorial in the Washington Post illustrates how harsh and unfair these deportations can be. Moreover we have no way of knowing how many people are being held under such circumstances, since the government will not release this basic information and refuses to comply with a FOIA request made by ADC, the ACLU and 20 other organizations. One thing we do know, however, is that these men would not be in jail if they had a different ethnicity or religious affiliation.
Secondly, I would cite the investigations in thousands of young men, again mostly Arab, based on their age, national origin, gender and time of entry into the United States. The government initially sought to interview 5,000 people based on these broad categories, and now seeks to investigate an additional 3,00 more. We strongly feel that this amounts to a form of racial profiling, since the criteria are so rude and broad-based. We note also that the government is using these so-called voluntary interviews to find and arrest additional people who are out of status. The information gathered in this manner is being collected in a national data-based, which suggests that the whole point of the exercise is to collect and maintain detailed dossiers on people of a certain description – to whit, young Arab men. No comparable effort to investigate any similar group of non-citizens in the United States exists as far as we know.
Thirdly, I would point out that the prioritization of finding the presumed “Middle Easterners” among the 315,000 or so “absconders,” persons ordered deported but who remain in the country, again demonstrates a clear bias. The move to add the list of absconders to the National Crime Database is part of a broader effort to bring regular police and law enforcement into immigration law enforcement activities that have heretofore been the provenance of the INS. But by adding the 6,000 presumed Middle Easterners first, and others among the 300,000 afterwards, the government is placing a priority on removing a group of absconders based on their ethnicity.
Finally, I would say that the new visa screening procedures, whereby males aged 16-45 from Arab states and other Muslim nations will have to answer a special questionnaire in addition to the one required of all applicants and wait an extra 20 days, is a clear policy of discrimination.
I would argue that by connecting the dots, so to speak, by examining these policies together – the detentions, the investigations, the absconders and the new visa screening rules – a pattern of coherent and systematic discrimination begins to emerge. Essentially, we have recast our immigration system to involve two completely different standards – one for young Arab males, and another for everyone else. The thinking behind these practices is clear and consistent: young Arab males are now considered by our government to be, by definition, suspicious, potentially dangerous and of interest to the authorities.
This idea, moreover, cannot be contained to these policies in the long-run. If we allow it to take root in our policies, it may well authorize similar forms of discrimination in many other instances. This is particularly disturbing given new powers for state, local and federal law enforcement to enforce immigration laws. It is our understanding that the Justice Department is about to release a legal opinion that will say that states and localities have the “inherent authority” to enforce immigration laws. This will presumably clear the way for local police agencies that wish to do so to arrest and detain persons based on suspected immigration law violations, apparently without undergoing training in immigration laws and policies. We are already receiving reports of university students being stopped by campus police and subjected to questioning about their visa status.
There is every danger that this new approach, if not handled with the greatest possible care, will bring us one step closer to becoming a police state or develop into a witch-hunt against persons who appear to be of Arab ethnicity. Moreover, any time the government itself is seen to be acting in an inherently discriminatory manner, it tends to authorize others in society to discriminate as well and reinforces prejudices that produce various forms of discrimination and even hate crimes. Some argue that altering the immigration system to include anti-Arab discriminatory practices is warranted by the Sept. 11 attacks. I would certainly argue it is not.
Acting in the name of national security based on such crude stereotypes, painting millions of people with a broad-brush of suspicion based on a flimsy profile of age, gender and ethnicity, will not enhance our security. It will divert scarce law enforcement and security resources away from truly effective measures that deal with actually-existing security threats towards thousands of people about whom there is no rational reason to be concerned. I am glad to say that there are many in the law enforcement and counter-terrorism field who agree with us on this point. As Vincent Cannistrano, the former head of counter-terrorism for the CIA has pointed out, “ethnicity is a false lead,” in other words it does not tell you anything useful about wether or not someone can be reasonably regarded as suspicious. We are gratified but not surprised that opposition to the dragnet investigations was widespread in the law enforcement community, to the extent that a number of local police chiefs simply refused to allow their officers to be involved in a project that struck many of them as indefensible, not what the police should be doing, and in some places even in possible violation of local laws or consent decrees. The idea that introducing discriminatory practice into our immigration system will bring us greater security simply does not stand up to scrutiny, although it may have a certain instant emotional appeal. And while it does not promise to seriously improve security, it certainly diminishes us as a society committed to non-discrimination and fairness.
At the very least we should be honest with ourselves about what ideas inform our immigration practices and what message is sent by them. We have a long history of racism and discrimination in our immigration laws and policies in the United States, but we eliminated them entirely some 50 years ago. Are we going to allow ourselves to be bullied into reversing this and returning to a system that incorporates discrimination and injustice as part of its basic structure? I am afraid that we have been drifting dangerously in that direction in the past 6 months.