JUNE 2002
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Out Of Sight But Not Out Of Mind

By Erica Pearson

"I have now been in solitary confinement for three and a half months, and by the time of the next hearing I will have been here for four months. Why am I imprisoned? Why in solitary confinement? What are they accusing me of? Nobody knows."

The letter was written this spring to Amnesty International from a man in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, held officially for violating immigration laws but actually as a consequence of September 11th. The human rights group cited his letter in a major March report, which found that a significant number of detainees are being deprived of basic international rights. In its annual report on human rights violations, released May 30, the group reported that the situation has not improved.

Nearly nine months after Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities began to arrest immigrants for visa violations and investigate possible Sept. 11 terrorist ties, many of the over 1,000 largely South Asian and Arab immigrants detained have been released or deported. However, about 200 detainees, none of whom have been charged with terrorism, remain in detention centers or jails in New York and New Jersey. Families in New York’s South Asian and Arab communities have been split apart and left without economic resources. Many are afraid to ask for help or report human rights violations for fear of being detained and deported themselves.

Although immigration officials first carried out major sweeps during the fall and winter, the detentions continue. The New York Pakistani press recently reported that 12 Pakistani immigrants were arrested in early morning raids during the past few weeks. Most of the detained are South Asian and Arab, taken in for visa violations that would not have led to an arrest before Sept. 11. "They are just grabbing everyone with a Middle Eastern name," said Bill Crain, a City College professor who lobbied for the release of a student. Government officials say they are simply carrying out necessary investigations. "We don’t indiscriminately single out people, or go after any specific nationality or ethnic group," said Scott Dempsey, an information officer at the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Newark office. "We detain people who are here illegally or have committed crimes."

Languishing:

The government has carried out the detentions, hearings and deportations in secrecy, saying that information about the detainees could compromise terrorism investigations. The secrecy has created very sad situations, said Rita Dave, a lawyer from Queens who represents several families of detainees. "Two of the families have still not located their loved ones, we cannot find out where they are physically being held," said Dave. "These people are just languishing." The USA Patriot Act allows officials to hold someone for an immigration violation indefinitely if they suspect the person of terrorist ties.

Saleem Jamal, a Palestinian detainee from Brooklyn, began a hunger strike in May to demand he be deported or released. He was detained for overstaying his visa on October 7, and has spent over seven months at the Passaic County Jail in New Jersey. "He was ordered deported but then was informed he could not be deported since his country is at war," said Shubh Mathur, a doctoral student from India and a member of South Asian social justice goup Desis Rising Up and Moving. Mathur and other members make regular visits to detainees in the New York area. "We hear every day about broken families, about broken lives, about communities under siege," said Mathur. Dempsey, from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that he could not comment on Jamal’s case or any others for security reasons. Jamal was still on hunger strike in a New Jersey jail, drinking only water with salt, when this story went to press.

Families:

When most members of the Khalil family were detained this spring, the youngest children turned to their neighbors for help. At six a.m. on February 27, Reem Khalil, a senior biochemistry major at City College, and her family awoke to immigration agents storming their home. The agents arrested Khalil, her parents, and three teenage siblings and took them, hands and feet in shackles, to the Federal Bureau of Investigation offices in Federal Plaza. The Khalils were sent to separate detention facilities and jails in the New York area. Reem Khalil’s two middle school-aged brothers, the only members in the undocumented Syrian immigrant family who were born in the U.S., were left in their neighbors’ care. The Khalil family was not reunited until early May. According to Bill Crain, a City College professor who lobbied for the family’s release, immigration officials told the Khalils that their detention had been "a mistake."

Most families affected by the detentions, like the Khalil children, turn to neighbors or relatives, said local activist Debbie Almontaser, who is a Yemeni immigrant. But family and friends can only provide so much support. Because many of the detained are the breadwinners in their family, the arrests have left women and children unable to pay for rent and food. "Families who are undocumented have no financial assistance, many of them have been evicted from their homes, many don’t even have food to feed their children," said Almontaser. Places like the Islamic Church of North America, Desis Rising Up and Moving and local mosques and churches have set up relief centers.

Protests:

Every Saturday, activists, families of the detained and community members protest the detentions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where about 50 detainees are being held. June 1 makes 18 Saturdays of chanting "Ashcroft Ashcroft! Set them free! This is not democracy!" and repeating unmet demands for the names and charges of the people held inside.

Civil rights groups across the country have filed suits on the detainees’ behalf, but the legal struggles are moving very slowly. The New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union has been fighting to make the Passaic and Hudson County detainees’ cases public information since last November.  On March 27 a New Jersey judge ruled that, according to state law, the government must release the names of detainees in New Jersey Jails. When issuing the ruling, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Arthur D'Italia called secret arrests "odious to a democracy." The government appealed, however, and in mid-April the New Jersey Appellate Court decided to grant the government a stay during the appeal process. The judge hasn’t yet ruled on the first appeal, said Deborah Jacobs, New Jersey Executive Director of the union. The next step in the case may not happen until late in the summer.

Since early this year, activists from Desis Rising Up and Moving have been campaigning for public meetings with Immigration and Naturalization directors from New York and New Jersey. The group thought they would finally be able to ask immigration officials direct questions when Andrea Quarantillo, director of the New Jersey office, agreed to meet at the Paterson, NJ library on May 13. However, when members of Desis Rising Up and Moving said that they wanted press to cover the meeting, Quarantillo refused to attend. In a letter to the activists, she said that the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit bars her from discussing detention operations.

Fear:

Community leaders say that the prolonged months of detentions and deportations have left many in New York’s Arab, South Asian and Muslim communities afraid to contact authorities or city officials, even if they have been dismissed from a job or felt other discrimination because of their race, country of origin, or religion. On May 14, the Arab American Family Support Center, New York City’s only city-sponsored relief organization for the Arab community, held a town meeting in downtown Brooklyn to address this very problem.

However, most of the officials at the forum asked community members themselves to reach out as a first step, and didn’t address the fear and disenfranchisement that have kept Arab and South Asian immigrants silent in the first place.

Frederick Patrick, from the New York Police Department's Community Affairs office did not talk in depth about recent fears and reports that New York’s police are helping the Immigration and Naturalization Service in their detention efforts, simply saying, "There is no policy in place that allows enforcement of civil violations." Patrick instead spent most of his time urging those in the audience to attend precinct council meetings. Esther Fuchs, a senior advisor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said that the best way for immigrants who feel powerless in New York City to change their situation is to "become citizens and vote."

A representative from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission first urged those who feel they have been discriminated against on the job to file complaints with city, state and federal human rights offices. He then admitted that his organization has been sharing office space with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Lower Manhattan since Sept. 11, making it highly unlikely that undocumented Arab or South Asian immigrants will feel they can safely stop by to file a complaint. "It is a terrible irony," he said.

People left the meeting feeling a bit stunned. "I just feel like several very important issues weren’t addressed," said Subhash Kateel, a member of Desis Rising Up and Moving. "We are dealing with people who are largely undocumented, that are having these problems. And for the officials to just urge them to use their power and vote, you know, most people in our community can’t vote!"

Many families are also unwilling to speak to the media because they are afraid that officials will see their name in print and arrest or deport them as well. In January and February, Pakistani immigrant Uzma Naheed and her sons regularly attended protests at the Metropolitan Detention Center and talked to many news organizations about the detention of their husband and father, Anser Mehmood. Naheed’s 14 year old son Harris led chants at the detention center protest, shouting, "Free my father!"

However, Naheed herself left this spring under threat of deportation. She returned to Pakistan with her children, leaving Mehmood behind. He is still detained.

 

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