Organizers of the Republican National Convention in New York City took every opportunity to use the image of the Statue of Liberty — on giant banners hanging outside Madison Square Garden, and as the backdrop for a speech by Vice President Cheney delivered from Ellis Island.
Something is terribly wrong with this picture, however. The symbolism is strong, but the substance is missing.
While the vice president gave his speech, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in the streets, some carrying signs that read, “Protect Immigrants’ Rights” and “The Emperor Wears No Clothes.”
As factions within the Republican Party argued over a platform plank on immigration, missing from their debate was the erosion of civil rights, especially for immigrants, after 9/11.
In complete violation of due process, hundreds of Arab and Muslim immigrants were detained by the government after 9/11 and held for months without charges. Later, Arabs and Muslims were again singled out without any basis for suspicion when, en masse, they were ordered to register with immigration authorities. Of the 83,000 who registered, none were found to be terrorists, but 13,000 are being deported anyway.
Just two weeks before the Republican convention, immigrant detainees at Wackenhut Detention Center in New York conducted a hunger strike to protest the injustice of their prolonged detention and inhumane treatment. Wackenhut lies just a few miles from JFK Airport, the arriving airport for many RNC delegates, but is out of sight to the public.
The protests around the RNC were a culmination of cries for help that have fallen on deaf ears. Immigrant groups have held countless rallies and petitioned the government to protect their rights. Some have resorted to desperate measures like hunger strikes.
The calls for justice have come not just from immigrant groups. Nonpartisan government agencies, commissions, and religious leaders have investigated the troubled state of immigrants’ civil rights and have urged the government to respond. Long before the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General documented in July 2003 the abuses and humiliation suffered by the 9/11 detainees at the hands of prison guards in New York.
In its report released this summer, the 9/11 Commission recommends that “our borders and immigration system, including law enforcement, ought to send a message of welcome, tolerance and justice to members of immigrant communities in the United States and in their countries of origin. We should reach out to immigrant communities.”
For more than two centuries now, immigrants have been a vital force in building America and defending its freedom, from the nation’s first railroads up through today’s Silicon Valley, from World War I to the war in Iraq. Immigrants deserve the same protections as other Americans.
In this difficult moment in history, we are all concerned about improving our security. But let’s not forget what makes America worth protecting in the first place — our commitment to freedom and the Constitution. If our nation is to stay true to its founding ideals, our leaders must take action to restore and protect the civil rights of immigrants. “Liberty and justice for all” demands nothing less.
Elizabeth R. OuYang, a civil rights attorney for 18 years, represents immigrants facing deportation since 9/11. This article was provided by the New York Immigration Coalition, www.thenyic.org.