One Tuesday back in March, Thar Abdel-Jaber was driving through Raleigh, North Carolina when police clocked him doing four miles over the speed limit. The officer who pulled him over found several thousand dollars and maps of the state with red circles drawn around several cities. Soon, FBI agents were asking Abdel-Jaber whether he was a pilot and why he made all those circles. Abdel-Jaber, a thirty-year-old father of five, explained that he sold electronic equipment and had circled cities where swap meets and flea markets were located.
The FBI found no links to terrorism, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service continued to investigate him and discovered that the permanent resident had broken a law requiring noncitizens over the age of fourteen to report address changes within ten days of moving. Abdel-Jaber came to the United States in 1998 to join his wife and, a year later, the Palestinian native moved from Florida to Virginia to live closer to his sister. The law dates back to the '50s and is rarely enforced. Abdel-Jaber said he had never even heard of the law, but pleaded guilty and served a 25-day sentence. Yet the INS kept him behind bars for four months as it attempted to deport him to the West Bank.
Although the INS's own guidelines state that failing to report an address change normally should not serve as the sole reason for deportation, the Department of Justice decided this summer to enforce the law and penalize noncompliance with possible fines, jail time, and deportation. Last month, Abdel-Jaber won his freedom when an immigration judge ruled that the government could not deport people who were unaware of the law. While immigrant advocates cheered the decision, they also said Abdel-Jaber's close call represents a disturbing trend: The federal government's willingness to trample over civil liberties in the name of national security.
In the past year, the government has made fundamental changes to immigration with new laws and executive actions aimed at immigrants and visitors. Though the purpose of the slew of rules is to make America more secure by closely tracking visitors and tightening visa screening, they are written so broadly that immigrant advocates fear innocent people could be detained and deported. The new rules severely compromise due process and bog down a notoriously backlogged agency with even more paperwork, they say. (It already takes more than four years in some cities for the INS to issue a green card.) With each new immigration regulation, the Department of Justice writes another chapter in a book that could be entitled "How to Harass Immigrants and Not Catch Any Terrorists."
Some of the new changes include
* Detaining noncitizens without charges in the event of an "emergency or other extraordinary circumstance."
* Closing hearings -- including deportation proceedings -- to the public for security reasons, a practice that the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit declared unlawful last month.
* Allowing eavesdropping on attorney-client conversations whenever there is reasonable suspicion to believe the inmate may use communication with attorneys to further acts of terrorism.
* Restructuring the Board of Immigration Appeals by instituting a one-judge review (in place of the current three-judge panel) and reducing the board from 26 members to eleven to increase its efficiency.
* Allowing local law enforcement to make arrests on civil immigration violations. (This measure is opposed by the California Police Chiefs Association, who argue that it would keep people from reporting crimes and would weaken community policing.)
* Requiring visitors from certain Middle Eastern countries to register with the INS upon arrival for photographing and fingerprinting, and to continue to report to the INS periodically: at the one-month mark, a year later, when making an address change, and at exit. (The government may also specify which city the visitor will leave from.) Failure to satisfy any of these requirements may result in criminal penalties and inclusion in the National Crime Information Center database, the system through which cops run motorists' names to check for warrants after pulling them over.
Jayashri Srikantiah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, says the government's actions generally fall under two themes: secrecy and racial profiling, and that should worry citizens and noncitizens alike. Many parts of the Patriot Act, such as those concerning wiretaps and searches, apply to all federal investigations, not just terrorism.
"There's very little accountability to the American public or immigrant community to explain what's happening, who's being targeted, and how they're being treated," she says.
Take the new registration requirement for nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria, which takes effect today. It aims to keep a closer eye on visitors from these five countries thought to be home to terrorists, but what it actually accomplishes, says Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, is fill the INS databases with the names and addresses of law-abiding folks.
"It ends up creating an even larger haystack in which a handful of dangerous needles will never be found," she says. "The people who are coming here to do us harm are not the people who are going to report their change of address or show up to register or otherwise report their presence. It's not doing anything to make us more secure. What it does is send a very severe chill through immigrant communities."
And those are the communities the government needs cooperation from most of all to counter terrorists, she adds. Same thing goes for Attorney General Ashcroft's July decision to enforce the address change rule. The measure applies to an estimated eighteen million noncitizens who are older than fourteen and lawfully live in the United States.
Deportation as punishment for untimely address changes is too harsh, says Judy Golub at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "It's like executing someone for jaywalking," she says. "It doesn't fit the problem."
Even when people do send in their address changes, the INS often loses them, Golub says. Never mind that the agency doesn't even maintain a central address file and that there's no way to receive confirmation of whether the change has been entered. When people try to use Federal Express or certified mail to have proof of filing, the INS refuses to accept them, she says. And the agency is so backlogged that it could literally take months or even years to record the changes. (This is, after all, the same agency that sent student visa approvals to a Florida flight school for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi six months after they flew planes into the World Trade Center. The INS also lost track of 539 of its weapons and another 81,000 items -- including vehicles and aircraft -- according to an audit by the Office of the Inspector General last year.)
The rise of so many new rules makes it easier for millions of immigrants to run afoul of the law -- by simply not being in the right place at the right time with the right papers. That the regulations are so broad leaves room for people to be singled out and profiled.
And while this drastically changes things for today's immigrants, it's nothing new historically.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made life difficult for Chinese immigrants, and the backlash against southern and eastern Europeans during WWI also led to harsher immigration standards. Or, to go way back, the Alien and Sedition acts of 1798 gave the president the power to imprison or deport aliens suspected of activities posing a threat to the national government. (The latter were passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress ostensibly to destroy Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party.)
More recent anti-immigrant campaigns took place during the McCarthy era and with the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.
Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at UC Davis and historian, remembers a similar reaction by the government after the US embassy in Iran was taken over in 1979. Every Iranian student in the country had to report to the INS to check on their visas and some were deported for minor infractions, such as not taking a full courseload. The irony is that many of the students studying abroad were sympathetic to the Shah, says Hing, then an immigration attorney.
"At that time, Iranian students were the largest number of foreign students in the US, so it was a huge deal, and a lot of us fought that and lost because of the sort of special powers that Congress and the president had, like it was a time of war."
To Hing, the new rules and the climate they generate are a step back in American race relations. "We're always repeating history, and years later people will say we made a mistake, but we do it all the time. It's like the country is willing to give in to a panic mode, realizing that it may be overkill. We overreact. That's the historical pattern of this country."
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