Thousands caught in deportation nightmare

Less than two weeks after Rabih Haddad’s wife vowed to clear the name of her deported husband, she and three of her children have themselves been deported. Salma Al-Rushaid and her children, ages 5 through 13, were deported July 28 to her native Kuwait for alleged visa violations. The family hopes to join Haddad in Lebanon soon. The couple’s fourth child, a U.S. citizen, will remain here.

Rabih Haddad, co-founder of a Chicago-area Islamic charity, was secretly deported to Lebanon on July 15 after being held in custody for 19 months by the Justice Department on suspicion of funneling money to terrorists. No terrorism-related charges were ever filed against Haddad or his charity.

The case of Rabih Haddad and his family attracted national attention, with civil libertarians, civil rights activists, and the Arab American community rallying to their defense. But thousands of families face the prospect of imminent deportation with little, if any, fanfare.

More than 13,000 immigrants and their families have had to put their lives on hold as the U.S. government threatens one of the largest mass deportations in the history of the country.

The program responsible for this, called the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) includes a provision called “special registration,” in which people of certain ages, mainly males over 16, from predominantly Muslim nations are ordered to register each year with the federal government. In its first year, 82,581 people registered, and of that number, 13,153 were given a “notice to appear” (NTA), which initiates deportation proceedings.

“The likelihood of an immigrant going through a deportation proceeding and not being deported is very low,” said Sobash Kateel of Families for Freedom, a group that works with families of deportees, in an interview with the World.

Of the thousands given NTAs, less than one half of one percent were found to be involved in any sort of criminal activity, and none were found with any connection to terrorism.

“NSEERS is presented as a national security program,” Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee told the World. “But it doesn’t help national security to spend all this time playing ‘Gotcha!’ to catch these people who have pretty minor visa violations. When it comes to Muslims and people from the Arab world, the government is using the most strict and draconian standards for what is a violation: for example, someone on a student visa who falls one credit hour short of full time. This doesn’t make anyone safer.”

The deportations and fears of deportation are creating havoc for thousands of families.

“My friends who are immigrants and I have to make different choices,” said Kateel. “Which streets to walk on, whether we go to the hospital or not, whether we dial 911 if our house is burning down, and so on. People are really scared and really fearful about day-to-day things that citizens take for granted.”

Suarev Sarakor, a field organizer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the World, “A lot of these families are coming from societies where the man is the primary wage earner. So when the man gets deported, the women and the children are then left to pick up the pieces. Emotionally, it’s extremely destructive. … These are people who were working in restaurants, grocery stores and weren’t doing anything wrong.”

The economic impact has been severe. “Cities and states were already struggling financially, and then the money in [immigrant] communities is gone,” Sarakor said. “Their stores are closing down, the hours get shorter and shorter. It has a real financial effect on communities as a whole, not just families, but entire neighborhoods.”

Many see special registration as part of an ongoing crackdown on immigrants and their families that started when federal immigration laws were changed in 1996, well before the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Folks want to talk about Sept. 11,” Kateel said. “But it wasn’t a watershed the way people think it was.” There is no doubt, however, that deportations have escalated under George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, he said.

Kateel adds that this new round of attacks, while creating fear, has also prompted a new level of organization for immigrants’ rights.

One example is the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, sponsored by organized labor, immigrant and civil rights groups, religious institutions, student and community organizations, and elected officials to demand legalization, family reunification, and respect for worker rights without regard to legal status. For more information on the Freedom Ride, call (212) 492-2164, or visit www.iwfr.org.

The author can be reached at dmargolis@cpusa.org