War on Terrorism is Like War on Immigrants

The following appeared in the Star-Ledger on February 19, 2003. It was written by Parastou Hassouri, ACLU-NJ Immigrant Rights Specialist.

Sixty-one years ago today, President Roosevelt issued the infamous Executive Order that authorized the internment of Japanese Americans. The Supreme Court upheld the order in Korematsu v. United States, a decision that holds a place of dishonor in American jurisprudence and represents one of the more shameful periods of our history. Americans would like to think that today our judgment could not be twisted by such overt racism. But comments like those made earlier this month by Representative Howard Coble (R-North Carolina) defending Japanese internment indicate how easily our politicians might lead us down that same dangerous path.

Today, as we prepare once again to go to war and as the Justice Department wages its so-called "war on terrorism," another community has come under attack. In November 2002, the Department of Justice began to implement the new National Security Entry-Exit Registration System which requires that male citizens sixteen years and older from designated countries who entered the United States on temporary visas before specified dates register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The first countries designated were Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria; since then, the list has expanded to twenty-five countries. Almost all are predominantly Muslim, raising an outcry against ethnic profiling from groups concerned about discrimination and civil rights.

Regardless of one's moral conclusions about racial or ethnic profiling, its important to evaluate what the Special Registration program accomplishes. A key question is whether Special Registration will help catch terrorists. Considering the sophistication of Al Qaeda, do we really think that would-be terrorists will just present themselves at INS offices? No, the people who go to register are compliant members of our society.

Moreover, the Special Registration program risks alienating Muslim communities just at the time when the government most needs cooperation to effectively investigate possible terrorist cells in the country. Government actions since the tragic attacks of September 11 have done little to reassure American Muslims that the war on terror is not a war on Islam; rather, Muslim communities have felt isolated and stigmatized. They have witnessed the indiscriminate trampling of civil liberties and wholesale abandonment of due process, as hundreds of Muslim men have been rounded-up, detained in secrecy, denied access to counsel or the ability to confront any evidence against them, and deported after closed hearings. Many have left behind spouses and U.S. citizen children struggling to survive. How can our government expect trust and cooperation from Muslim Americans when it promotes a climate of fear of persecution?

In New Jersey, of all places, we know that profiling is an ineffective criminal investigation technique with countless negative consequences. It hasn't helped the police catch drug dealers on the Turnpike, and it hasn't helped law enforcement catch terrorists. To date, not a single post-September 11 detainee has been charged with terrorism. Investigating terrorism, like any criminal investigation, must be based on behavior and actual intelligence information, not on immutable characteristics such as one's place of birth or religion. Profiling offers no more than a false sense of security.

We must also question the wisdom of having the INS expend tremendous resources to amass a database of information gathered from individuals who have voluntarily presented themselves to the government. This from an agency beleaguered by administrative backlogs and inefficiency, as evidenced by issuing a student visa to a dead terrorist, by unearthing 200,000 unprocessed change of address forms in the basement of its Kansas City offices, and most recently by the indictment of two INS employees in Laguna Niguel, California, charged with willfully destroying documents. To make matters worse, serious concerns have arisen as a result of the way in which this program has been administered. The arrest and detention of hundreds of men who reported to the INS office in Los Angeles have once again heightened preexisting anxieties among Muslim communities and confirmed their fears that the program is a pretext to round-up their members.

The Department of Justice's so-called "war on terrorism" increasingly looks like a war on immigrants. Special Registration simply institutionalizes and reinforces xenophobia, and the view that all immigrants are suspect. The administration is promoting an "us" vs. "them" mentality and pushing the country back in time, to shameful periods of our history that we have long since renounced.

Sixty-one years ago, Americans kept silent in the belief that encroaching on the rights of a minority preserved America's security. The cost of that silence was the humiliation and alienation of a whole generation of Japanese Americans. We cannot afford to remain silent today.

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