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These Lives Matter: “Detainee Not Found”

Port Isabel Detention Center

Guestblogger:Claudia Valenzuela, Associate Director of Litigation for Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center

This post is the second in a new series titled “These Lives Matter,” in which NIJC staff, clients, and volunteers will share their unique perspectives on immigration stories that do not always make the news.

I began my legal career working with Guatemalan asylum seekers looking to become lawful permanent residents of the United States. In working with this community, I heard stories time and again about loved ones who had been disappeared and saw firsthand how having a husband, son, or daughter disappeared can create a special kind of guilt, fear and grief. Working with detained immigrants many years later, I cannot help but notice parallels between individuals who were purposely disappeared in 1980s Guatemala and individuals who disappear when taken into ICE custody – mainly in the ways that family members left behind are affected by not knowing the immediate fate of their loved ones.

When an individual is detained by ICE, he or she can in fact be disappeared. It can take family members days, or in some cases weeks or even months, to locate loved ones arrested by ICE. Sometimes, a family does not learn of a loved one’s whereabouts until that person calls home after they are deported.

Locating a loved one relatively quickly does not necessarily lessen the trauma of witnessing the arrest in the first place. Take the case of Viviana and Martin*—mother and son. ICE officers came to their home and misled Viviana into believing that they were local police officers who only wanted to talk to Martin. They convinced Viviana to call her son home. She was devastated after witnessing the officers take her son into custody without further explanation. Martin—who had just turned 18,had diagnosed learning disabilities, had no previous encounters with the immigration authorities, and had engaged in no wrongdoing—was taken away, surrounded by armed men, while Viviana watched helplessly. The hours following Martin’s arrest were harrowing. Viviana spent that night calling every police station in town, only to be told there was no one by her son’s name in custody. Throughout the ordeal, Viviana was overcome with grief at the thought that she had turned in her own son.

There are countless stories like Viviana and Martin’s—sometimes it’s mothers, sometimes fathers, sons or daughters, taken away while loved ones, including children, stand by helplessly. In the aftermath, there usually are frantic calls to numbers that lead nowhere. It takes luck to reach an ICE officer who will answer any questions. The ICE Online Detainee Locator System—a public relations initiative ICE instituted following a series of wide-scale raids that resulted in mass “disappearances” —is hit or miss, more often a miss. If loved ones can get online—and most of the family members we encounter every day do not have access to the internet—they must either have the person’s “alien number” or the exact spelling of their name, date of birth and country of nationality. Then they must pass a “captcha” security check by typing in a word that appears in a box. Even lawyers have a difficult time getting the system to work. Despite having the necessary, accurate information, we still frequently get the message “detainee not found” if it is less than 24 hours since the arrest. It also takes the system a while to be updated following a transfer to a new detention center. This delay makes the first 24 hours or so following a person’s arrest all the more distressing for loved ones who realize a family member has gone missing.

Martin eventually reached his mother, after a collect call finally made it through to Viviana. He was later released from ICE custody after posting a bond. But months later, Viviana lives with the fear and guilt of those critical hours after Martin was taken away, when she believed her son to be missing and felt that she was responsible.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Picture Courtesy of http://www.texasobserver.org

What does a world without civil liberties look like?

There are many examples of the steady dissolution of human rights in this post-9/11, “War on Terrorism” age in the United States. Racial profiling and the practice of preventive prosecution have disillusioned many who have traditionally seen the U.S. as a place where civil liberties thrive and the justice system is fair. Racial and religious profiling have become major causes for concern, and that is just one aspect of the web of increasingly stringent laws and security practices that have proliferated life in America since 9/11. The tragedy of that ill-fated day has translated into a continued state of paranoia, where basic values are ignored in the face of a potential or assumed threat.

One such story is that of Syed Fahad Hashmi, a U.S. citizen who has been through the worst of the American detention system after being accused of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism. This “material support” involved letting an acquaintance stay with him, an acquaintance who later delivered winter clothing to Al Qaeda.

Hashmi’s story was recently retold in a compelling piece by his former Brooklyn College (CUNY) professor Jeanne Theoharis for The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the account, Hashmi was a devout Muslim and very politically active, regularly voicing his criticisms of American policies in the Muslim world. While pursuing his master’s in London, Hashmi hosted an acquaintance – Mohammed Junaid Babar – who had brought luggage that he later handed over to an Al Qaeda leader in South Waziristan, in Pakistan. Hashmi was arrested on June 6, 2006 and held in custody for 11 months until his extradition to the United States. Hashmi was then placed in solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, at first with some facilities. However, five months later, he was put under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), a measure that severely restricts a prisoner’s contact with the outside world and removes all sense of privacy. Under SAMs, Hashmi’s detention was described as follows-

[Hashmi] was allowed no contact with anyone outside his lawyer and, in very limited fashion, his parents—no calls, letters, or talking through the walls, because his cell was electronically monitored. He had to shower and relieve himself within view of the camera. He was allowed to write only one letter a week to a single member of his family, using no more than three pieces of paper. One parent was allowed to visit every two weeks, but often would be turned away at the door for bureaucratic reasons. [Hashmi] was forbidden any contact—directly or through his lawyers—with the news media. He could read only portions of newspapers approved by his jailers—and not until 30 days after publication. Allowed only one hour out of his cell a day, he had no access to fresh air but was forced to exercise in a solitary cage.

The government cited Hashmi’s “proclivity for violence” as a justification for the measures, even though he did not have a criminal record, did not exhibit any signs of violence or have a demonstrated reach outside of the prison. Over the next three years, Hashmi’s lawyers appealed the SAMs over 30 times, being rejected each time for one implausible reason after another. On April 27, 2010, Hashmi agreed to a plea bargain, with the government, of one count of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison not just for luggage that someone else had brought into his apartment, but also because of his “anti-American jihadist ideology,” according to Judge Preska. Hashmi made his first public statement in four years, thanking everyone, both Muslims and non-Muslims, for their support. Hashmi was later transferred to the federal high-security prison in Florence, Colorado and in March this year moved into its Supermax ADX facility, the most draconian prison in the federal system. Meanwhile, his once acquaintance Babar, who was the one to physically deliver winter clothing to Al Qaeda, was sentenced to “time served” (four and a half years out of a possible 70) for his “exceptional” service and because he “began co-operating even before his arrest.

While Hashmi’s true intentions – i.e. whether he was aware of his acquaintance’s Al Qaeda connection or if he had ever considered that route himself – are unknown, the outcry against his detention is more about the authorities completely denying him his right to basic human rights and civil liberites. This becomes even more deplorable especially since he is a U.S. citizen imprisoned in his own country. Hashmi’s case echoes other stories of racial and religious profiling that received much media coverage in the aftermath of 9/11. One of the stories was of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, who went missing on 9/11. Widespread speculation labeled him as a terrorist and an accomplice to those who carried out the attacks. However, a few months later, his remains were found near the World Trade Center wreckage and it became clear that he had died while being part of the rescue efforts.

Institutionalized racial and religious profiling deeply impacts the community at large and influences the public perception of specific groups that have been targeted by government and national security. In the ten years since 9/11, Arab-Americans and South Asians have increasingly become the targets of hate crimes around the country. In a recent instance, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down in a suburb of Sacramento without any provocation. The police indicated that there was a high chance of hate motivation for the crime.

Representative Peter King (R-NY), who had recently triggered much uproar about his Congressional hearings targeting Islam in the United States, has now added ethnic profiling to his earlier agenda. In a public television appearance on April 5, King stated that “a person’s religious background or ethnicity can be a factor, one of the things to look at.” This blatant push for religious and racial profiling instead of behavioral profiling is a foreboding sign that the issue will not be going away anytime soon. Until there is a change in this position, unfortunate stories of extreme incarceration, wrongful accusations and hate crimes will continue.

Hashmi’s former professor, Theoharis, sums up her thoughts on America’s tenuous handling of the terrorism threat, stating-

…Seeing that humanity is at odds with the political zeitgeist, where endless searches and small bottles of shampoo and fear-mongering subway posters have become the currency of national security. Where a growing obsession with homegrown terrorism means that we are again willing to chisel away the Bill of Rights in the name of protecting America.

This disintegration of the Bill of Rights for the sake of “national security” points to a future where the state of paranoia may quite likely run every facet of our lives. Such a dystopic future, where basic American values and human rights have been compromised, is the subject of Breakthrough’s ground-breaking new Facebook game, America 2049. In this alternate reality game, the player is tasked with the capture of a presumed terrorist and pushed to ask the question- What if? How close have we already come to America 2049? How can we work together—in real life—to build a better future? The game addresses issues such as racial profiling, religious intolerance, and sexual discrimination by presenting a scenario where wrong choices made today will adversely affect our future. And if the widespread cases of racial profiling and complete removal of civil liberties continue, as with the case of Hashmi, the virtual world of the future in America 2049 might come upon us much sooner than we think.

Photo courtesy of racism.conocimientos.com.ve