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Dept. of Homeland Security ends biased and ineffective immigrant registration & tracking system

On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) made a long overdue announcement indefinitely suspending the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a framework that has been fraught with controversy and inefficiency since it was launched in the wake of 9/11. Several advocacy organizations have welcomed the move but have also called for the DHS to repair the damage that NSEERS has done over the years.

Over the past six years, the NSEERS required individuals from primarily Arab countries to register with the government on arrival and departure from the United States. These countries included Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Individuals who fell under the critera were required to undergo around 30 minutes of additional inspection at a port of entry if  entering the U.S on nonimmigrant visas. Visitors had to register again when exiting the country. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) justified the existence of the system stating that it was implemented “to keep track of those entering and leaving our country in order to safeguard U.S. citizens and America’s borders.”

The DHS and ICE have been criticized for their overt racial profiling of Arab visitors or those who appear Arab in an effort to preserve national security. The almost exclusive focus on visitors from the Arab countries showed that an institutional typecast was established, a move that received much flak from advocacy groups. The NSEERS impacted a lot of innocent people . In 2003, Abdulameer Yousef Habeeb, a refugee from Iraq was traveling on an Amtrak train from Seattle to Washington, DC to start a new job at an Arabic-language newspaper. While the train had stopped for a 30-minute break in Havre, Montana, Habeeb was singled out by two border patrol agents and then subsequently interrogated, arrested, imprisoned and set up for deportation back to Iraq. This was all because Habeeb hadn’t registered with the NSEERS even though his status didn’t require him to do so. In March 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Habeeb, seeking compensation and damages for his losses and suffering as a result of the erroneous arrest and imprisonment. Finally, in June 2007, the U.S. government apologized to Habeeb for their misconduct and offered compensation. The message from U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan for the Western District of Washington giving Habeeb a formal statement said-

The United States of America acknowledges that, by not registering under NSEERS, you did nothing wrong. The United States of America regrets the mistake.

In what seems like an extension of their acceptance that Habeeb “did nothing wrong,” the DHS is now saying the same thing with regard to the entire community their NSEERS program had targeted. In their official announcement, the DHS gave the following reason for the cessation of NSEERS-

Over the past six years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented several new automated systems that capture arrival and exit information on nonimmigrant travelers to the United States, and DHS has determined that recapturing this data manually when a nonimmigrant is seeking admission to the United States is redundant and no longer provides any increase in security. DHS, therefore, has determined that it is no longer necessary to subject nationals from these countries to special registration procedures.

Cases such as Habeeb’s indicate that the NSEERS mistreated several nonimmigrant visitors to the U.S. from Arab countries. Therefore, while the suspension of the NSEERS is a much welcomed move, we must also not forget the damage to people and families that was caused by the program’s implementation over nine years. The mistrust of Arabs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 branched out into the profiling of other ethnic communities such as Sikhs and other South Asian groups as well as the wider community of Muslims in America. The recent congressional hearings lead by Peter King on the “radicalization of Islam” are another testament to this deep mistrust and societal damage. Several advocacy groups such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), along with the Arab American Institute (AAI), the National Immigration Forum (NIF) and the Rights Working Group (RWG), have praised the end of NSEERS, jointly stating-

The NSEERS program was a counter-productive response in the wake of September 11, 2001…One controversial aspect of the NSEERS program was a “domestic call-in” component that solicited registrations from more than 80,000 males who were inside the United States on temporary visas from predominantly Arab, South Asian, or Muslim-majority countries. The specific parameters of NSEERS revealed it to be a system that was a clear example of profiling: discriminatory, arbitrary, and, as DHS itself has stated, an ineffective national security measure…It is critical that DHS view this rule as a starting point for granting relief retroactively for those affected by NSEERS. Ultimately, these groups believe that NSEERS must be repealed in its entirety.

The steady erosion of basic human rights after the tragedy of 9/11 has affected numerous Americans and visitors to this country. In our current state of paranoia, we as a country have singled out and alienated specific groups, and programs such as NSEERS have added to this damage to the social and cultural fabric of our country. The suspension of the program is definitely a positive step by the DHS, which should be furthered by the full elimination of the program and a reform of the DHS policies and functioning to become unbiased and effective. The unfortunate cases of racial profiling, such as that of Habeeb, should not be repeated. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, we must strive towards an America that cherishes its diversity and doesn’t needlessly suspect those who are different. The time is right for us to re-embrace one of our greatest strengths as a nation – our diversity.

Photo courtesy of dhs.gov

Racial profiling: Degrading, unconstitutional and ineffective

Observations by Restore Fairness’ Zebunnisa Burki-

Have you ever been told that you don’t look like an American? Have you ever been stopped and searched by police just for driving around in a neighborhood? Or felt discriminated at airports? I have. It might be difficult for most people to know what its like to feel singled out. But this is what a lot of people of African-American, Hispanic, Arab and Asian and South Asian descent face when going about their lives in the US.

Using this as the premise, Breakthrough partnered with the Rights Working Group,  the Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP) and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) on Tuesday, December 7th, at the NYU School of Law, for a screening of two documentaries: Face the Truth: Racial profiling across America, produced by Breakthrough and the Rights Working Group, and Americans on Hold: Profiling, Prejudice and National Security, produced by CHRGJ. The screenings were part of the Rights Working Group’s “conversations on racial profiling” and were followed by an engaging Q&A session with filmmakers and activists, Madhuri Mohindar from Breakthrough, Nadine Wahab from the Rights Working Group, and Amna Akbar from CHRGJ, NYU.

Face the Truth, produced in September 2010, narrates the story of Karwan Abdul Kader, a Kurdish immigrant, who was stopped and stripped by law enforcement officials just because he was in the wrong neighborhood and looked “different.” Through his story and those of Juana Villegas and Lena Masri, Face the Truth serves as a reminder that even the land of opportunity doesn’t always support diversity. The film also makes an honest attempt to understand the fraught relationship between immigrants and local law enforcement by interviewing police officials and civil society activists.

Americans on Hold, the second documentary that screened that evening, follows a similar structure, narrating the personal stories of Anila Ali, a Pakistani immigrant community organizer and Zuhair Mahd, a visually challenged Jordanian immigrant. The film’s focus is immigration, and citizenship and race in the US, especially when looked at in light of recent counter terrorism legislation and policies.

Post 9/11, the U.S. witnessed an increase in racial profiling against people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, mostly due to new counter-terrorism measures. These include the now infamous FBI name check and National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, better known as NSEERS, which allows authorities to target individuals from 25 specific countries, most of which are Muslim.

According to Nadine Wahab, domestic law in the US is often ambiguous on racial profiling. Policies such as NSEERS, along with the TSA’s recently tightened “counter terrorism” measures; Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the Secure Communities program, and the general atmosphere of racial bias by law enforcement, have led to extreme distrust among immigrant and other vulnerable/minority communities.

What is most disturbing about the new developments is the encouragement and support for policies such as full body scans and pat downs by the TSA, especially as propagated by mainstream media, politicians and political movements. A good example of this is an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that does its best to highlight the “benefits” of TSA’s stricter security measures.

The films (and the discussion after) served as a reminder that racial profiling and bias are not the lot of any one community. These are issues that continue to affect all communities of color. Black/Latino/Arab/South Asian/Asian- these targeted communities all face the same discrimination but often remain cocooned in their own niche spaces, finding it difficult to reach out to each other.

In the Q&A that followed the screening, there was a strong consensus on the need for all targeted communities to stand united and work for legislation such as End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA) and the DREAM Act. To do this, it is important to look at the “war on terror”and the “war on drugs” through the intersectional lenses of race and class. Linda Sarsour of the AACP rightly pointed out that immigrant communities that were most affected were those who were also financially less well off than others indicating this to be as much an issue of class as it is of race.

During the conversations following the screenings, there was a palpable sense of empowerment engendered as a result of sharing stories of racial injustice, further highlighting the need for our different communities to work together on the many unresolved issues related to immigrants’ rights and racial bias. Issues such as stop and frisk policies, class, race and national legislation dominated the discussion.

The audience, coming from a number of different racial backgrounds, did not hesitate from commenting, sharing personal stories, and asking questions. The most interesting part of the evening were the personal accounts of racial profiling shared by a number of audience members. From stories of stop and frisk by police, and informants tracking down and interrogating Muslim men in mosques, to horrifying stories of entrapment by the FBI, the cathartic energy of the stories became apparent as time went by.

As someone who is used to the natural fear that one feels traveling in and out of the US, to me, the evening was an exercise in building confidence and hope. To see people with Hispanic, Arab Muslim, African American, and South Asian backgrounds coming together and discussing ways to collaborate on immigration and race issues with a unified voice, is an encouraging sign. It felt like the beginning of an understanding that racial prejudice and bias touches more than one community, nationality and ethnicity—the beginning of something better.

Photo courtesy of Press TV

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Faith communities shine the light for CIR ASAP on International Migrants Day

candle_flame_0.thumbnailFaith communities across the country have been banding together to give an important voice for immigration reform, countering extremism, forcing a conversation about morals and American values, and in some instances intervening on the part of their congregation members.

Last week, faith leaders launched the “Shine the Light for Immigration Reform” campaign, a week-long series of Interfaith Days of Action urging Congress to reunite families and welcome the stranger. The days of action, which began on December 10th, International Human Rights Day, will culminate tomorrow, December 18th, the eve of International Migrants Day, with a vigil at a church near the White House where diverse faith leaders will deliver prayer flags and signed postcards from the various vigils and posadas held over the week to send a powerful message to Congress that comprehensive immigration reform must be delivered early in 2010.

Rev. Michael Ellick, Associate Minister of the Judson Memorial Church in New York City, a participating congregation, articulated the timeliness of this call to action; echoing Rep. Gutierrez’s recent words before Congress:

“This is the greatest crisis of our time. To delay or deny immigration reform not only turns our backs on the great legacy of our society of immigrants – which by the way was forged and populated by the greatest migration of people in the history of the world, it’s to turn our back on 5.5 million children who are our own.”

Other churches, like the century-old Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey has been engaged in activism for several years. After the 2006 raids, when armed federal immigration agents rounded up 35 Indonesian men with expired visas and outstanding deportation orders, their wives and children, as well as others in hiding, began pleading to sleep at the church, and Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale couldn’t ignore the issue.

While attempting to intervene and understand the complex terrain of immigration law and detention on behalf of the Indonesian Christians who shared his sanctuary, Kaper-Dale discovered that many of them had initially arrived on tourist visas in the 1990s, but had over-stayed their visas, because they faced violence and discrimination in their home country.  After 9/11 when the government required “special registration,” NSEERS (termination recently requested in a December 7th letter to DHS and DOS), of men ages 16 to 65 who entered the country on temporary visas from a list of primarily Muslim countries, including Indonesia, most of these Indonesians complied, on the advice of their pastors, hoping that honesty would open a pathway to citizenship. Instead, their appeals for asylum were denied, and those who registered became targets during immigration crackdowns.

However, under an unusual agreement eventually negotiated between Kaper-Dale and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Newark, four Indonesians have been recently released from detention, and 41 others, living as fugitives from deportation, have turned themselves in under the protection of the church. And rather than jailed, they have been released under supervision, and are eligible for work permits while their lawyers figure out how their cases might be reopened.

Though agency officials claim this type of arrangement is determined on a case-by-case basis, advocates hope it signals a broader use of humanitarian relief as Congress begins to tackle immigration reform in the new year. But skeptics recognize that this “church run-alternative to detention” is both an inconsistent exception and a temporary band-aid within a flawed immigration system that demands an overhaul.

Therefore, until the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 CIR ASAP” which Rep. Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced on December 15th, and other proposals, based on the same principles, including one from Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), who heads the Senate Immigration Subcommittee and Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who heads the House of Immigration Subcommittee, which are expected to be put on the table in early 2010, are transformed into actual legislation, millions of immigrants, like Patricia, a mother fighting a deportation order, will live in limbo with the fear of separation, only temporarily mitigated by the passionate efforts of pastors, like Rev. Kaper-Dale, and a committed volunteer base.  As Patricia simply asserts through a translator:

“Before our neighbors took us in for sanctuary, we lived in fear and insecurity…As a family, we want to call for comprehensive immigration reform that can help us to have a better life, so we can live with dignity and honor in this country, as children of God.”

So, if you’re in Washington tomorrow, shine some light for CIR ASAP, and URGE the remaining congressional members to get on board to fix this crisis.

Photo courtesy of Christian Religious Leadership Network

First ever Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and Law to re-examine our treaty obligations

committee_roomThe Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and Law under the guidance of Senators Durbin and Coburn is holding its inaugural hearing on the domestic implementation of human rights treaty obligations, tomorrow, Wednesday, December 16th.  The hearing will focus on how the U.S. government is currently upholding human rights treaties to which it is a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention Against Torture, the Genocide Convention, the Refugee Protocol, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Children in Armed Conflict, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Child Prostitution, and will also examine what more the U.S. government could do to fulfill its treaty obligations to protect and promote human rights.

Witnesses will include:

·       Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil
Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice
·       Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human
Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State
·       Wade Henderson, President and Chief Executive Officer,
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
·       Elisa Massimino, President and Chief Executive Officer, Human
Rights First

Additionally, our coalition partner, the Rights Working Group (RWG), will submit testimony on how the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has called for specific reforms under the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) to combat racial profiling in the U.S., including many recommendations that both RWG and ACLU initially submitted in a report to the U.N. Committee, which have yet to be implemented.

Particularly concerned about the impact of post 9/11 policies that have eroded the civil liberties and human rights of communities of color, RWG’s testimony will draw upon Article 2 of ICERD, which states:

“Each State Party shall take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination whereever it exists.”

And their statement will endeavor to remind the Subcommittee that after reviewing the U.S. record of implementation of its obligations under ICERD, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination adopted several Concluding Observations, in particular, Paragraph 14, which addressed a number of U.S. laws and policies that needed immediate attention.  For example, the UN Committee specifically called on the U.S. to pass the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), to strengthen the June 2003 Department of Justice Guidance on the Use of Race in Law Enforcement, to end the National Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS) and repeal §287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act passed in 1996.

Because none of the above Concluding Observations, were implemented, RWG will also present the following list of critical recommendations to ensure that the U.S. is properly executing its obligations under ICERD by implementing the recommendations of the UN Committee:

• Introduce and pass the “End Racial Profiling Act”
• Strengthen the 2003 DOJ guidance to ban profiling based on religion and national origin, eliminate the loopholes that allow for the use of race and ethnicity in the name of national security and border security, and make the guidance enforceable
• Terminate the NSEERS program
• Repeal 287(g) and eliminate all programs that devolve the responsibility for the
enforcement of federal immigration law to state and local law enforcement agencies.

The ACLU will also be presenting testimony that calls upon Congress and the current administration to “correct the transgressions of the past [administration] by honoring U.S. human rights obligations and commitments, and using our commitment as a beacon for setting policy at home and abroad.”  Their specific recommendations entail the need for Congress to effectuate our human rights treaty obligations by transforming them into detailed domestic laws, policies and programs with effective enforcement and monitoring mechanisms through the active engagement with other branches of the government to certify that our treaties are being promoted and respected at all levels.

The importance of this hearing cannot be overstated; it is the first oversight hearing on human rights treaty implementation since 1992, when the Senate ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  And this Committee was initially eliminated at the beginning of the 111th Congress, and Senator Durbin and his staff fought to get it back.  So, let’s make sure we pack the hearing room to show strong support for the Subcommittee’s interest in and continued monitoring of human rights issues.

If you’re in Washington tomorrow, and can attend this critical public hearing, see the details below:

The Law of the Land: U.S. Implementation of Human Rights Treaties
Hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law

Date:                Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Time:                10:30 a.m.
Location:        Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 226