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Immigrants Under Attack

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Oct 01, 2001
 

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Like so many people throughout the world, Attar Singh was deeply saddened by the attacks on the World Trade Center, so the evening of September 11th, he went to a temple in Richmond Hill, Queens and prayed for the victims. It was a temple for Sikhs, the followers of a religion wholly separate from Islam but whose members also wear turbans and long beards. Singh, 66, who is from New Delhi, was in New York visiting his sons and grandchildren. As he walked back to their home, four men jumped him, apparently thinking he was an Arab. They shot him with a BB gun and then beat him with a baseball bat.

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The next day, police stopped an Amtrak train bound for Penn Station and took ten passengers in for questioning. All but one were eventually released; the one was held on charges unrelated to the hijackings. Meera Kumar, who works for the Ford Motor Company, was among the passengers held. "We're in a terrible emergency," Kumar told a reporter later. "But I'm a full-fledged tax-paying United States citizen. I shouldn't have been subjected to this, nor should anybody else."

A new Middle Eastern restaurant just blocks from St. Vincent's Hospital, the closest trauma center to the site of the World Trade Center, began putting American flags in its window and displaying a blackboard calling its cuisine Israeli, after several ominous incidents; in one, a customer told a waitress that he had a gun.

Inocencio Tecalero, an 18-year-old deliveryman for Candy's, a restaurant in the financial district, has additional worries after the terrorist attacks. The restaurant may be closed for months, and he is the sole supporter of his seven brothers and sisters in Mexico.

The events of September 11 have had a sharp impact on many Americans. But for immigrants and members of some minority groups, including Arab Americans and Muslims, the effects have been extreme enough as to make them in some ways the other victims of the terrorist attacks. A few have been the targets of hate crimes, harassment, or racial profiling. Some face difficulties getting disaster relief because of their status, or are especially vulnerable financially. Many worry that changes in national immigration policy may negate the freedoms that brought them to the United States, and New York, in the first place.

HATE AND SUPPORT

No immigrant group has been more affected by the attacks than the estimated 200,000 Arab Americans who live in New York and New Jersey. Almost immediately after the attack, Arab Americans, other Muslims, and some who simply looked as though they might be, became victims of harassment.

In the week after the trade center tragedy, the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee reported some 200 violent incidents against Arab Americans, Muslims and South Asians across the nation. New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said there were 56 bias incidents in New York City against Arabs, most of them verbal harassment. (A Gotham Gazette reader posted a list of about 50 incidents on the our 9/11 message board).

"The bigoted acts of a small minority are creating an atmosphere of apprehension and fear in the American Muslim community," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Across the country, there have been some shocking incidents -- the killing of a Sikh owner of a gas station in Arizona; the murder of a Pakistani Muslim storeowner in Dallas.

Nothing compares to this in New York so far, but the city's immigrants have had their share of trouble. A Sikh man reported that three men pounced on him and yelled "terrorist" in Manhattan. In the days after the attacks, a group of teenagers vandalized Middle Eastern stores on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and police were called in to protect the store's owners. And Islamic students across the city expressed fear of going to school.

In response, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has established a hot line for people to report such crimes (800 552-6843 ). And the Council on Islamic Relations has a place on its web site for people to file similar reports.

While the Council on Islamic American Relations has called upon President George W. Bush and other elected officials to make more and stronger statements against anti-Muslim bias, many Arab groups have praised the support they have received.

In a newspaper column, James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, wrote, "The president has spoken out against this [anti Arab] bigotry, as have almost all other public officials. The Department of Justice has been active in organizing a national outreach program to combat hate crimes against Arab American and American Muslims." He added that the emails his offices received have been "20-to-1 supportive of our community."

There have also been strong local demonstrations, both symbolic and practical, of support for Arab Americans and Muslims in the city in recent weeks. Programs have been set up to escort Arab students to school, political and religious leaders of many faiths have visited mosques and Muslim leaders, and rallies for inter-ethnic unity have been held across the city.

On October 6 in Flushing Meadows Park, a group of students from 50 schools will meet to speak out against hate and paint a large mural dedicated to unity between immigrant and non-immigrants in the city. "It's a way to give young people a creative outlet in response to the bias attacks," said Bryan Pu-Folks, president of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, one of the groups that helped organize the event.

Even local Middle Eastern restaurants like Zaytoons in Boruem Hill, Brooklyn have seen small signs of support from neighbors. When Zaytoons re-opened several days after the attack, the owner Ahmad Samhan found a stack of letters and notes from neighbors. "When you reopen, I will be the first one in line for chicken shwarma," one patron wrote. "You are an important part of this neighborhood."

RACIAL PROFILING

While few would publicly support incidents of harassment, there is a wider acceptance of a heightened suspicion from police, airline security, and immigration officials of people with dark complexions, Islamic clothing, or unfamiliar sounding names.

The week after the attack, according to the New York Times, observers reported that police at checkpoints on the bridges into Manhattan appeared to be singling out drivers who looked Arab or Muslim, a charge the officers denied. Others reported similar incidents by security at Kennedy Airport. "Anyone with dark skin or who spoke with an accent was taken aside and searched. And they went to any male with too much facial hair," a passenger told the Times.

Before one flight, several Arab American men were removed because other passengers refused to fly with them. Hearing of the incident, the Arab American Anti Discrimination Council asked the Federal Aviation Administration to issue guidelines saying that passengers cannot be excluded from a flight simply because of their ethnicity. "It is unacceptable that passengers are expelled from aircraft because someone, even the pilot, just doesn't like the way they look," said committee president Zaire Assail.

Groups fighting such profiling have an uphill struggle. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken shortly after the terrorist attacks, almost 60 percent of Americans now favor requiring people of Arab descent to undergo more intensive security checks than other passengers on U.S. airlines. Further the public is divided over whether Arabs living in the U.S. should have to carry special identification, although only a third said they would support putting Arabs in the U.S. under special surveillance.

Some 125 people of Arab extraction across the nation were detained by law enforcement between September 11 and September 24, the Los Angeles Times reported. Hundreds, if not thousands, have been questioned.

This practice is in stark contrast to the recent view of racial profiling of blacks and Latinos. By last year, 13 states and hundreds of local governments passed laws designed to study or reduce such profiling. And in the months prior to the events of September 11, the New York Police Department had been a subject of investigation for racial profiling. The U.S. attorney made the city turn over its stop-and-frisk data and a new stop-and-frisk form was initiated, requiring more detailed information on why police officers decided to stop a particular person on the street.

But while some elected officials like Representative John Conyers and Senator Russell Feingold have said they would press ahead with federal legislation to stop profiling, the tone of the debate has changed. Even some civil libertarians support singling out Arabs in an effort to combat terrorism. Floyd Abrams, a prominent New York First Amendment lawyer, said, "The difficulty we must now address is a situation in which all the hijackers are from abroad, all are from the Middle East, and all are Arabic speaking. In those circumstances, it seems entirely appropriate to look harder at such people."

"Would anyone think it unfair for airport security personnel to target a group of male, Arabic passengers traveling with little luggage who were seeking one way tickets?" asked Stephen J. Singer, former president of the Queens Bar Association, in a recent opinion piece in Newsday. "Clearly not ... The irony is that this practice has truly evolved into the exact form of racial profiling we were trying to suppress." Singer added, "How sad that this is among the peripheral results the Arab terrorists have achieved."

THE STRUGGLE FOR RELIEF

Incidents of harassment and racial profiling have been well publicized, but there are other lesser-known ways the attacks have affected immigrant communities in New York.

To date, relief organizations have raised more than $500 million, the Governor has proposed free tuition to State and City universities for the children of victims, and, there are plans to give tax breaks to businesses so they will not leave the city.

But some immigrants are having trouble getting disaster benefits, according to immigrant advocates. Margie McHugh of the New York Immigration Coalition said there are many police and Immigration Naturalization Service officers at relief centers, which intimidates both legal and illegal immigrants.

"There is also a randomness in terms of the information being given out right now," said McHugh. "Some are being told that citizenship status may be required to receive benefits in some programs, and there is confusion about eligibility and the rules."

In an effort to fight fraud as millions of dollars are donated to relief efforts, the State Attorney General has proposed creating a database to match up recipients and donations, an idea that relief agencies say will scare away some people, particularly new arrivals to the country, who need help. "People will not come to us if they think we are going to put their names in some big database," said Dr. Bernadine Healy, the Red Cross president.

And many non-profit groups who usually cater to the needs of new immigrants, particularly in Manhattan's Chinatown, have been hit hard by the attacks as well. Organizations that help residents get unemployment, deliver hot meals to the elderly, and provide translation and legal services are simply struggling to rebuild their organizations, get their phones up, and open their doors again.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Much of the nation's economic focus is on the airline industry, on Wall Street, and on the financial corporations that lost their offices in the World Trade Center. It is clear, though, that the terrorist attacks will also have a devastating economic effect on many immigrants, particularly those who work in low-paying jobs in the service industry.

There were 350 employees from two dozen countries who worked at the Windows of the World restaurant. There are also 1,820 janitors, elevator operators, security guards, window washers and tour guides displaced by the attack, represented by the Service Employees International Union. There are also employees who worked for hotels in and around ground zero, who will have trouble finding work elsewhere. About 600 members of Local 6 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers were laid off before the attacks, and 1,200 more have been let go since, said John Turchiano, a union spokesman

While some efforts are being made to help employees in the hotel industry and get World Trade Center janitors hired elsewhere, some workers may not be even eligible for unemployment because they work as independent contractors or change jobs frequently.

It is estimated that 100,000 New Yorker in low-paying service positions will lose their jobs as a result of the attacks.

"The day they destroyed the World Trade Center, they destroyed our business," Steven Ellis, the sales director of a car service based in Park Slope, Brooklyn said.

In addition, some computer infrastructure for getting welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid was damaged in the attacks, leaving thousands without public assistance. And many illegal immigrants, who work as construction workers, landscapers, and migrant farm workers in the New York area and support families in their home countries, fear that if they try to return home they will face tighter security at border checkpoints and may not be able to return.

THE ROLE OF THE PRESS

Some newspapers have run stories and headlines that could be seen as fueling anti-Arab sentiment; the Village Voice cover the day after the attacks read simply, "The Bastards!" But much of the coverage is not stoking the fires, but simply reporting on them; some 120 articles posted on the South Asian Journalists Association web site are "backlash" stories. These are the numerous reports of hate crimes, bias crimes, and general outbreaks of prejudice.

To the ethnic press in New York, this is not good enough. "While the press has done a good job of covering the dangers posed to Arab Americans," said Jyoti Thottam, president of the South Asian Journalists Association, "there still is not enough awareness of the fact that South Asians are being lumped together with Arabs by the media and the general public."

Mohammad Farooqi, publisher of the Pakistani Post, a national paper run from Jamaica, Queens, said there is another way that coverage has been limited: "They're talking about people being arrested and detained, but I don't see anyone talking in the mainstream press about why this [incident] has happened."

Reza Delghari, editor of the Iranian Community Newspaper, a national paper based in Manhattan, agreed. "There is little focus on why it happened. Such a violent action reflects an extreme in those countries that is also a degree of desperation."

Despite his criticism of the mainstream press, Delghari said that his own newspaper has not been given over to September 11 coverage. "Like many Iranian publications, we're trying to stay away from focusing too much attention on this. The Iranian community is so divided and opinionated about issues that deal with the internal politics of the U.S. and at home [Iran]." But Delghari added that most of his Iranian readers "have no sympathy for those terrorists or the fundamentalists."

TURNING IMMIGRANTS AWAY

Increased security and suspicion in the nation could also bring about changes in immigration law that would have a profound effect on New York, a city where 40 percent of the population is foreign born. Some legislators want to decrease the number of visas given to millions who come to the U.S. each year to study, work, and visit. There is also a move to provide more government monitoring of foreigners once they arrive.

Another immediate effect is that the debate about whether to legalize the estimated eight million illegal immigrants currently in the country may be delayed for years to come. Just a week before the attacks, President Bush met with the President Vincente Fox of Mexico to discuss the issue.

The last major revision to immigration and refugee law came in the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996, a law inspired by the 1993 bombing in the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City bombing. The law resulted in less mobility for those seeking asylum, who are now more likely to be held in Immigration and Naturalization Service detention centers while their cases are decided. It also made it easier to deport foreigners suspected of terrorism without trial and based on evidence that does not have to be disclosed.

"The 1996 bill had a lot of measures that beat up on immigrants without really going after terrorists," said Margie McHugh, director of the New York Immigration Coalition. "We are watching Washington closely to see what comes out of this event."

Last year nearly 4.2 million people were granted visas for tourism and business, another 284,000 received student visas. Many of those people came to New York City, and if it becomes more difficult for them to visit, it will undermine the tourism industry.

"We are still in the first few weeks of this," said McHugh. "The economic and political reverberations will be felt in a ripple effect across the city for a long time to come."

This story was reported and written by Mark Berkey-Gerard, Gail Robinson, and Alex Viado.




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