With the live broadcasts of the 9/11 commission hearings over the past few months, the nation has finally begun to see a serious reckoning of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policy. As important as it is, the debate stirred by Richard Clarke and Condoleezza Rice’s testimony has only scratched the surface of national security issues. The commission issued a long-overdue criticism April 16 of the government’s targeting of immigrants in national security policies, saying that the roundups and registrations of Arabs and Muslims failed to apprehend any actual terrorists or contribute to national security.
This was the commission’s first admission that cracking down on immigrants doesn’t make any of us safer.
Now that the 9/11 commission has touched on one of the worst abuses of the Bush response to Sept. 11, it is up to the rest of us to crack open this debate by connecting the dots between the government’s mishandling of the war on terrorism abroad and at home.
The post-Sept. 11 treatment of immigrants and communities of color is not simply a passing phenomenon. It is a sustained reality that can be named. When an entity uses policies and procedures to justify discriminatory treatment based on race, that’s called institutional racism. But what is more insidious is that this racism has been normalized and legitimized through national security policies.
The damage done to immigrant communities continues, and the public still does not know the context and scale of the problem. Since these policies were implemented, up to 13,000 immigrants have been ordered deported. The majority are economic migrants and refugees, yet they are being prosecuted as public enemy number one in the domestic war against terror.
These policies are based on the idea that immigrants’ interests are opposed to those of the native-born. But immigrants have a right to safety and security as well. As Mohsin Zaheer, a Pakistani resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., put it, “I live here with my family, so the security of this country is as dear to me as anyone. I want my kids to be safe.”
Since the advent of “special registration,” an estimated 20,000 Pakistanis have fled Brooklyn in order to avoid detention. In New Jersey, which has a large Muslim and Arab population, the FBI has questioned nearly 60,000 people since Sept. 11, according to agency spokesman Steven Kodak. Jersey City’s immigrant community is so heavily scrutinized by law enforcement that local residents and even several mainstream newspapers call it “Terror Town.”
In Texas, immigrants have been denied housing because some landlords and apartment associations are encouraged to screen applicants for potential terrorists. Latino and Asian immigrants have been raided and fired from airport security and service jobs. And across the board, immigrants of color have been increasingly subjected to a sustained climate of fear, harassment and surveillance.
Scapegoating provides no real security for anyone but has raised levels of intolerance and discrimination. This tone was set at the very top. Bush administration policies of military trials, indefinite detentions and collective punishment of immigrant communities gave a green light to the states, cities and hatemongers to do the same. As the body count climbs in Iraq, we are likely to see in increase in hate crimes at home.
This April 13, Asa Hutchinson, the undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security, announced major changes to the department’s immigration detention policy resulting from last year’s Justice Department report chronicling widespread abuse and racial profiling. These changes are a step in the right direction, but America also needs a full accounting of the impact that post-9/11 policies had on immigrant communities.
In truth, a counterterrorism strategy based on fear and racial profiling has undermined security at home. Not only did immigrant Americans lose a measure of security, but all Americans were deprived of the truth about Sept. 11 under cover of an anti-immigrant frenzy.
Tram Nguyen is the executive editor of Colorlines magazine.
This article is reprinted from Colorlines Racewire. © 2004 Applied Research Center.