The Disappeareds of Brooklyn

By Jennifer Pinkowski

A limousine driver named Mohammad Akathdar Ansari was returning home on a Monday morning when six men in suits stopped him right at the door of his apartment building in Sea Gate, Brooklyn. They identified themselves as agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"Where are you going?" they asked him.

"Home," he replied, baffled.

The agents told him they were there to investigate one of his neighbors, a man who had immigrated from Pakistan. But Ansari also had immigrated from Pakistan, six years ago, and so, as a result of this chance encounter the agents searched Ansari's apartment -- and then arrested him. They also woke up and arrested his 27-year-old nephew, Rashid Arshad, who had the bad luck to happen to be staying with his uncle that evening. The charges? The agents claimed that Ansari did not have the visa he said he had, and that Arshad's visa had expired.

Ansari was taken to a detention center in Paterson, New Jersey, where he slept in a barracks with 35 other men, mostly Muslims being held for immigration violations.

A few times the FBI came in to question him. They asked him about the hijackers: did he know them? No, he answered.

It took 22 days and $5,000 in bail for Ansari and his nephew to get out of detention.

Mohammad Butt never got out. During his one-month stay at a Hudson County, New Jersey prison, no one in his family was contacted, none told where he was. The first they heard what had happened was from a telephone ca ll informing them that he was dead. His heart, already weakened by blocked arteries and a birth defect, apparently could not handle the stress of detention.

Butt's story has been the most publicized, but such raids and detentions have been occurring throughout the nation since September 11th; the United States Department of Justice recently acknowledged that 208 Pakistanis were put into detention nationwide. While in prison, Ansari was surprised to realize that half of the Muslims in his barracks were neighbors of his, members of the community of at least 20,000 Pakistanis in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

The federal attention is apparently because the majority of the madrassas -- religious schools from which many armed fundamentalists emerge, including members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda are located in Pakistan.

But to the Brooklyn community, the early-morning raids, usually without search warrants, and the long detentions, almost all for minor violations of immigration law, are bitterly ironic. Isn't their homeland, they ask, America's staunchest Muslim ally right now? Aren't they the good guys?

The United States Senate is about to convene hearings about these and other issues that have arisen during the government's investigation of possible terrorist ties in the United States.

To Chris Dunn, a senior attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, the round-up of Pakistanis is something close to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, for which the U.S. government has since officially apologized. "A lot of people disappeared at the end of September," Dunn said. "They were put in detention centers, not allowed to contact family members, and in some cases put in solitary confinement.

"From reports we get it seems that people are being just swept off the street."

A MEETING ON CONEY ISLAND AVENUE

Coney Island Avenue is the street where they were most likely to have been swept. It is one of two commercial thoroughfares in Flatbush, a street dominated by Russians, Orthodox Jews, and, more and more, by Pakistanis -- many of them undocumented.

One of the most popular establishments on the avenue is Bukhara restaurant. It was there last month that an accountant named Asghar Choudri, the president of the Pakistani Federation of New York, who is known locally as the mayor of Coney Island Avenue, organized a meeting between officials and an angry, frightened community.

To a representative of the Immigration and Naturalization Service named Christian Rodriguez, several people in the crowd protested that they still were unable to get any information at all about the location of their detaine d relatives and friends. Rodriguez said that his agency has been slowed down because of myriad technical problems resulting from the attacks; the main INS office in New York City is about six blocks from Ground Zero. He held up his cell phone and smiled ruefully. "This is the INS." As a result, routine immigration hearings are taking as long as three months. Rodriguez offered to assist anyone who still had not been able to track down a detainee. But the crowd remained suspicious.

PATRIOT ACT

With the recent passing of the USA Patriot Act, the INS has seven days to charge someone with an immigration violation, and can delay that time indefinitely if it suspects that a person is a terrorist or otherwise a threat to national security.

The government is not required to provide counsel, as it is in criminal cases, but it must allow a person to try to get counsel by contacting a lawyer, family members or friends. People usually call collect from a pay phone in the detention center.

Then the person comes before an immigration judge to face the charges. The law does not dictate when this hearing must happen. The person has the right to ask for a bail bond to be set. The judge sets the amount. A person can then post bail and is generally released to await the next visit before the immigration judge. It is at that final hearing that the person's fate is decided: allowed to stay, or deported?

At the meeting at Bukhara restaurant, FBI agent Robert Moore assured the crowd that every constitutional protection was in place for the detainees; the FBI had even taken the additional step of alerting the Pakistani Consulate every time they brought someone in for questioning. (Normally this is done only at the detainee's request.)

It is important to follow the law, Moore said; America as a nation of laws is at the heart of its standing in the world, he said. "When we don't do that, we lose our bragging rights," Moore said.

But some are convinced that those rights have already been lost. Since September 11th, the procedure for dealing with immigrants in violation of immigration law has changed markedly.

"In the ordinary process, when people overstay their visas, they are never detained," said Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Apparently what is happening here is that there are hundreds of people being detained without being deported." Law enforcement agents did not used to go out in search of such violations, and when somebody was charged, they did not have to sit in prison waiting for their hearing.

WAITING

Mohammad Ansari's time in jail was not horrible, he says, just worrisome. He spent a lot of time lying on his bed thinking, "Why me?" He wondered what he would do if he was sent back to Pakistan; his former career as a journalist would not feed his eight children.

Ansari's apartment in Sea Gate still sits empty, even though he was released from prison earlier this month. He is staying with a friend in the friend's apartment in Bay Ridge. "When you're alone you think too much." He is also afraid the INS will come looking for him again, though he has been given a final hearing date of December 20, and he intends to show up for it.

Aside from immigration trouble, he is now in financial trouble as well. Because of the attacks, there was little limousine driving work before his detention. Now, after nearly a month's lost wages, there is even less. He pays rent on both the Sea Gate and Bay Ridge apartments. And then there is the $5,000 debt on his credit card, his bail money.

For Ansari, and those still in detention centers, there is nothing to do but wait. "It is in the judge's hands," he said.

On Ansari's sweatshirt, just above his heart, is a tiny embossed American flag.


ADDITIONAL LINKS:
INS
INS New York Asylum Office
ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project
National Immigration Forum
American Immigration Law Foundation
DOJ Info on Terrorist Attacks
DOJ Immigration Information
Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs
A Detainee's Death
Groups Gird for Long Legal Fight on New Bush Anti-Terror Powers
Ashcroft Offers Accounting of 641 Charged or Held

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