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 Yorks 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 dont
indiscriminately single out people, or go after any specific nationality
or ethnic group," said Scott Dempsey, an information officer
at the Immigration and Naturalization Services Newark office.
"We detain people who are here illegally or have committed
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 Jamals 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.
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 Khalils 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 familys 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 dont 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.
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 hasnt 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 Unions
lawsuit bars her from discussing detention operations.
Community leaders say that the prolonged months of detentions and
deportations have left many in New Yorks 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 Citys 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 didnt 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 Yorks 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,"
People left the meeting feeling a bit stunned. "I just feel
like several very important issues werent 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 cant
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.
Naheeds 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.
Back to The Citizen page!