The New Secret War Against Immigrants

From Haiti Progres

January 30, 2002

By Mark Dow

Prior to Sept. 11, Haitians were arguably the foreigners most discriminated against by U.S. immigration authorities. The brunt of the "secret war" outlined by Mark Dow in this article is presently falling on Muslims, Middle Eastern, and South Asian people. But the policies being set in place will affect Haitians, and other nationalities, tomorrow. 
Some 150 protesters gathered in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn's Sunset Park on Jan. 26 to make a few simple demands. "Tell us the charges," read one placard. "Who is being held?" read another. Less than a week before, about 200 protesters gathered outside the Passaic County jail in Paterson, New Jersey, to make the same demands. 

Unknown numbers of immigrants, held for unknown charges in unknown locations, now languish in U.S. prisons. MDC-Brooklyn, operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and New Jersey's Passaic and Hudson County jails are three of the principle facilities holding prisoners arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) or Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in post-September 11th roundups.

The INS's detention system has always been secretive. Before Sept. 11th, the INS already held some 23,000 persons in detention around the country. Middle-of-the-night transfers, denial of legal assistance, and outright brutality were well-documented (if under-reported) components of the INS system. 

But the secrecy - and the arrogance with which U.S. officials justify it - has escalated dramatically since Sept. 11th. The numbers are unclear, but the INS and FBI have probably detained thousands of legal and illegal immigrants, mostly Muslims of many nationalities, since the September attacks. Fiats by President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, together with the so-called anti-terrorist USA Patriot Act, bring other repressive changes: many previously public INS hearings will now be held in secret; the INS can continue to detain people who have been deemed eligible for release by immigration judges; and the INS can hold certain detainees indefinitely. In addition, the release of government information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) - on which attorneys, historians, and journalists depend - will be further restricted.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a suit under FOIA, has been able to compel the release of certain, limited information about post-9/11 detainees. The government gave a list of charging dates and country of origin for over 700 detainees. It blacked out the names, prisoner (or "alien") numbers, and detention/prison locations. Of course, there is no way of knowing whether the list is even complete: given the Justice Department`s track record and the simple fact that a lawsuit was required to get this minimal information, one can assume that there are many more "desaparecidos" in the system. 

According to a Washington Post analysis of the information released, "scores" of detainees "were jailed for weeks" without being charged at all (Dan Eggen, "Delays Cited in Charging Detainees," 1/15/02). The majority of the post-9/11 prisoners are being held for minor immigration violations. Most of the others are being held as "material witnesses" in the investigation of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Journalist Jim Edwards reports that, while Ashcroft claims "[t]he number of Muslim men jailed on minor immigration charges" went down to 450 in early/mid January, "numbers obtained from New Jersey jail officials and estimates from defense lawyers suggest that the total population of Muslim men detained may be closer to 600" (New Jersey Law Journal, 1/17/02). Edwards also reports that some 9/11 detainees have turned up in New Jersey's Middlesex County jail. The New Jersey affiliate of the ACLU has filed its own FOIA suit (local FOIA regulations tend to allow for the release of more information than federal ones).

Norman Siegel of the Freedom Legal Defense and Education Project, who attended the Brooklyn rally, estimated that the facility holds 30 to 50 Sept. 11 detainees. An FBI spokesperson, without confirming Siegel's estimate, said that those held at MDC Brooklyn in connection with Sept. 11 are either"material witnesses" in the FBI's investigation, or they are INS detainees. In other words, the INS may be housing some people held on minor immigration violations in the federal prison.

Using a bullhorn to cut through the traffic noise of the nearby Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Siegel challenged New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton to make their positions clear on releasing information about the secret detentions. Even high officials are afraid to speak out on the matter. But protesters were not intimidated when a passing fire engine slowed and sounded its air-horn to drown out the speakers. A firefighter leaned out and yelled "Go home! Get out of here!" They were home already.

The protest at the Passaic County jail, where reportedly some 250 Sept. 11 immigration detainees are being held, took place on Martin Luther King Day. The principal groups behind the day's celebration were the Prison Moratorium Project (PMP), the Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants (CHRI), and Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), which works with South Asian immigrants.

While mainstream immigration groups try to find the difficult balance between advocating for their clients and working with the INS, these activists have taken on the crucial role of challenging law enforcement tactics which are simply a means toward repressing -- and profiting off of -- immigrants and people of color. As Kate Rhee of PMP put it, there has been "a marriage of public and private," with the USA Patriot Act filling nicely the needs of "the prison-industrial complex."

Readers beginning to think "conspiracy theory" should instead think "reality check." Late last year, Steven Logan, Chairman and CEO of the Houston-based Cornell Companies, which builds and operates private prisons for state and federal governments, spoke candidly in a conference call with other investors. Since Sept. 11, "people that are illegal and also from Middle Eastern descent . . . [are] a population . . . that is being targeted," he said, adding "it can only be good." Good? In what sense? "The federal business is the best business for us" in the private prison industry, he said. "It's the most consistent business for us - and the events of Sep. 11 [are] increasing that level of business" (reported by criminal justice policy analyst Judith Greene). 

Uzma Naheed, a Pakistani woman from New Jersey, spoke at both rallies about her husband and brother, both men jailed now for some four months at MDC Brooklyn, for reasons still undisclosed to her. Acknowledging that they overstayed visas, she pleaded for the authorities to "let me know what [they] did. Nobody's telling us what's going on.

New York Daily News reporter Robin Haas ("Protesters Back Detainees in N.J.," 1/23/02), articulating the racism and idiocy behind current government tactics, asked the traditionally-dressed Mrs. Naheed how she would react to most Americans' view that "if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck" - duck meaning terrorist in this nuanced world-view - then it must be a duck. Naheed was silent, then noted that her husband and brother have not been charged with any crime. 

Nancy Cheng of the Center for Constitutional Rights noted that, although there is continuity between the 1996 mandatory detention laws and the 2001 USA Patriot Act, "the rules of the game have changed." She recalled that the Attorney General has now claimed the authority to hold "aliens" longer (i.e. indefinitely) without charging them, but doing so "is a due process violation." Chang said that some detainees have been denied the opportunity to contact attorneys. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Prisons has changed its rules governing eavesdropping on attorney-prisoner conversations. Chang also said that "since Sep. 11th, we have seen the INS taken over by the FBI." Chang's analysis was distilled into one of the protesters' chants: "INS, FBI, No more kidnaps, no more lies!"

The irony could not be more perfect. Justice Department officials tell immigrants to report hate crimes perpetrated since Sep. 11. But "the INS and the FBI . . . have been the biggest perpetrators of hate crimes" since that date, Subhash Kateel of DRUM pointed out. 

The groups behind the MLK Day protest have asked Passaic County Sheriff Jerry Speziale and New Jersey INS District Director Andrea Quarantillo to participate in public meetings in New Jersey and Brooklyn to keep communities informed about the detainees. Reached by phone on Monday, Quarantillo said, "They asked me to respond by Feb. 1st , and be assured I will do that." In a Jan. 21st letter, the groups asked for "transparency of due process, which we know to be the backbone of a working democracy."

Demonstrations outside MDC-Brooklyn are scheduled for every Saturday until names and charges of 9/11 detainees are made public. Take the N/R to 25th Street. Walk to 3rd Ave and 29th. More information: Arab-American Family Support Center (718) 643-8000. Prison Moratorium Project (646) 486-6715   pmp@nomoreprisons.org

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