Thursday, September 11, 2003 at 11:25 AM
On this second anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the legacy of the tragedy seems much more clear than it did even a year ago. With passage of the Homeland Security Act and the Patriot Act we've seen stepped up enforcement and modification of immigration laws and closer scrutiny of many people living within U.S. borders. Some say that's had dire consequences for immigrants - especially those with ties to the Middle East. ideastream's Bill Rice reports.
Music was just part of the program at the Beit Hanina Social Club earlier this week, along with food, poetry and testimony from folks upset about the current plight of immigrants in the United States. Arab Americans and others are unnecessarily and unfairly targeted, some say, by immigration and law enforcement authorities, as well as American society in general. Don Bryant is a U.S. postal worker and member of the Blue Triangle Network, which he describes as an immigrants' rights organization. As a member of the group's steering committee, he's the chief organizer of the event.
Don Bryant: I wanted to have an event now, at this time in September before the anniversary of September 11th because since the September 11th atrocities there's been a lot of racism, racial profiling against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians in our country - legally and just socially.
What Bryant calls an evening of solidarity has drawn about 100 people of varying backgrounds. But, he notes, many of them are white American citizens - the group he feels are the most able to speak out against persecuting those of other races and ethnicity.
Don Bryant: And we'd like to show the people of the Arab community and others that we really stand by them, we stand by immigrants because we feel these new laws that are targeting them are totally racially and religiously motivated.
Among the most egregious cases, Bryant says, is that of Ashram al Jailani. He's from Yemen, and has lived in Kent Ohio with his American wife and their three children. He's been detained by federal authorities for months without charge, is under threat of deportation, according to Bryant and others. A federal judge has ordered him released, but the Federal Department of Homeland Security has blocked the order. Newspaper accounts have cited FBI claims of links to al Quada as the reason. Dr. Ihsan Ul-Haque, Spokesperson for the Islamic Center in Cuyahoga Falls, it's wrong to keep al Jailani confined.
Ihsan Ul-Haque: There are four and a half U.S. citizens - one of them an immigrant, four of them American born, whose lives are shattered for innuendo, guilt by association and collective punishment for a crime that the government does not even have any clue as to what crime he has committed because they have not charged him with anything.
Al Jailani's story is cited often among those who condemn heightened governmental scrutiny of immigrants. His is documented. Other tales abound - but they're largely uncorroborated. One woman who attended Blue Triangle's solidarity gathering told of several incidents of perceived persecution: a young middle eastern man who was denied entry to the United States; a Muslim woman denied entry to a Cleveland public pool because of her Muslim dress; a refugee jailed for two days because of questions about his identification documents. The woman, who herself wished not to be identified, says none of these people are willing to come forward and speak out for fear of drawing more attention to themselves.
Anonymous: People are scared because they feel they are watched all the time. They don't know what the rules are anymore because immigration rules are now made as you go along. Nobody's safe from immigration. Any body who doesn't have permanent resident status is almost guaranteed to be kicked out.
Blue Triangle's Don Bryant tells of similar incidents.
Don Bryant: I've heard a number of anecdotal stories where people have been fired from their jobs. Actually some federal officials stormed into some homes, of certain store owners' families - I cannot mention any names because I was sworn to not say because people are just so afraid of being further persecuted.
Such anonymous stories are tough to answer to, say law enforcement officials. Robert Hawke is a special agent with the FBI's Cleveland office. He says no doubt about it, agents are much more engaged in investigating those who arouse suspicion.
Robert Hawke: Terrorism has become the number one priority with the FBI here in Cleveland. We have assigned more agents and local, state and county police officers to the joint terrorism task force, so obviously more work is being done in that arena.
But, he says, FBI agents act within the law, and are sensitive to race and ethnicity. And while immigration issues don't fall within the purview of the FBI, he says, when they do run across possible violations they do refer them to the Division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The agency did not return our phone calls. But one Cleveland immigration attorney says the vast majority of aliens who are in the United States legitimately have nothing to worry about.
Svetlana Schreiber: There is no attempt to gather up all the Arabs and move them from the country, which I believe the lay population has been led to believe.
But, says Svetlana Schreiber, immigrants don't have the same rights as U.S. citizens. Those who don't follow proper procedures - who lose their documents or ignore deadlines - and get stopped for even a minor traffic infraction can expect to find themselves behind bars and very possibly deported. Those who pay attention to their status and obey the laws, she says, regardless of their nationality, will be OK.
Svetlana Schreiber: Day in and day out I and other immigration lawyers are able to procure immigrant relief for Arab nationals to acquire either a non-immigrant or immigrant visa or a green card or ultimately citizenship, which I think is the dream of every single person emigrating to the U.S.
Meanwhile, immigrants remain nervous, and it's clear a lot more discussion and understanding is needed to adjust to conditions in this post-9/11 world. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.