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New reports document discriminatory government treatment of Muslims in America

Guest blogger: Amna Akbar, Senior Research Scholar & Advocacy Fellow at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law, and co-author of both reports mentioned below.

Cross-posted from Rights Working Group.

There are visible and less visible ways the government has targeted Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians since September 11, 2001. With the death of Osama bin Laden, however, mainstream pundits, commentators, and lawmakers have attempted to push us to forget the damage and the grief this “war on terror” has brought to our communities—and to immigrant communities and communities of color more broadly.

The “war on terror” has provided a rationale and an argument for an augmentation of state power.  As in prior historical moments, the brunt of increased state power has fallen on vulnerable communities.

But it is important to remember and account for the ways in which our families and communities have been marked and have suffered.  To grieve for the ways in which we have had to change.

This past month, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) has released two reports documenting, remembering, and memorializing.  Both reports raise serious human rights concerns.

Under the Radar: Muslims Deported, Detained, and Denied on Unsubstantiated Terrorism Allegations– which we released with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)– draws on interviews with attorneys and community-based groups, court documents, and media accounts to identify five key under-documented patterns of how the U.S. government has discriminatorily abused the immigration legal system against Muslim immigrants.  The patterns we document include the U.S. government’s use of unsubstantiated terrorism-related allegations without bringing official charges in cases involving ordinary immigration violations.  These practices prejudice the immigration judge and place the Muslim immigrant in a precarious situation where he is unable to defend himself against the allegations.  As a result, he is often pressured to self-deport.

Another pattern we document is the U.S. government’s use of flimsy immigration charges.  For example, the government often uses false statement charges for failure to disclose tenuous ties to Muslim charitable organizations in a way that seems to target Muslim immigrants for religious and political activities and affiliations.

The overall effect of these practices is that religious, cultural, and political affiliations and lawful activities of Muslims are being construed as dangerous terrorism-related factors to justify detention, deportation, and denial of immigration benefits.  The government seems to be targeting Muslim immigrants not for any particular acts, but on the basis of unsubstantiated innuendo drawing largely on their religious and ethnic identities, political views, employment histories, and ties to their home countries.

The patterns outlined in Under the Radar seem to be guided by racial and religious stereotypes, in a way that constitutes discrimination in violation of U.S. obligations under international human rights law.  The patterns also suggest the United States is failing to uphold its international human rights obligations to guarantee the rights to due process; liberty and security of person; freedom of religion; freedom of expression and opinion; and the right to privacy and family.   CHRGJ and AALDEF call on the government to put an immediate stop to the discriminatory targeting of Muslims through the immigration system, to provide greater transparency and accountability for immigration policies and enforcement.

Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the ‘Homegrown Threat’ critically examines three high-profile domestic terrorism prosecutions and raises serious questions about the role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in constructing the specter of “homegrown” terrorism through the deployment of paid informants to encourage terrorist plots in Muslim communities.  Focusing on the government’s cases against the Newburgh Four, the Fort Dix Five, and Shahawar Matin Siraj, the report relies on court documents, media accounts, and interviews with family members of the defendants to critically assess the government’s practices.  The report also, lays bare the devastating toll these practices have had on the families involved.

In the cases we examined, the government sent paid informants into Muslim communities, without any basis for suspicion of criminal activity.  The government’s informants introduced, cultivated, and then aggressively pushed ideas about violent jihad, encouraging the defendants to believe that it was their duty to take action against the United States.  The informants also selected or encouraged the proposed locations that the defendants would later be accused of targeting, and provided the defendants with—or encouraged the defendants to acquire—material evidence, such as weaponry or violent videos, which would later be used to convict them.  The defendants in these cases have all been convicted and currently face prison sentences ranging from 25 years to life.

The families caught up in these abusive government practices have been torn apart. As a result of these prosecutions, they have lost their loved ones to prison, but they have also been branded as families of terrorists. They have lost jobs, family, and friends. Though many of them are organizing for change, the devastating impacts cannot be overestimated.

A number of cases around the country, raising similar concerns, suggest that these practices are illustrative of larger patterns of law enforcement activities targeting Muslim communities.  The report considers key trends in counterterrorism law enforcement policies that have facilitated these practices, including the government’s promulgation of so-called radicalization theories that justify the abusive targeting of entire communities based on the unsubstantiated notion that Muslims in the U.S. are “radicalizing.”  The prosecutions that result from these practices are central to the government’s claim that the country faces a “homegrown threat” of terrorism, and have bolstered calls for the continued use of informants in Muslim communities.

These practices are violative of U.S. obligations to guarantee, without discrimination, the rights to: a fair trial, religion, expression, and opinion; and effective remedy. The report calls on the government to stop discriminating against Muslims in counterterrorism investigations; to hold hearings on the impacts that current law enforcement practices are having on Muslim communities; and to revise the guidelines that currently govern FBI and NYPD activities and allow for such abusive practices to go unchecked.

Both reports raise serious concerns about the ways in which the U.S. government is marking Muslims and Muslim communities as particularly dangerous.  These practices have taken profound tolls on our communities.  The need to remember, and to remain vigilant, remains.

Photo courtesy of muslimmedianetwork.com

“With Osama Bin Laden dead, can we have our rights back?” – How the effects of 9/11 could lead to America 2049

On Sunday, May 1, President Obama announced the death of Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the notorious terrorist who spearheaded the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. While the predominant reaction from around the world has been one of relief and joy, bin Laden’s death reminds us of just how big an impact the 9/11 attacks had on us and the way we perceive and treat each other.

While the U.S. was already grappling with the immigration issue, 9/11 triggered a major overhaul of legislation that imposed stringent restrictions on immigration and gave the government much greater power to infringe on the rights of citizens and visitors to this country. The U.S had essentially gone into lock-down mode domestically, and U.S. foreign policy became more aggressive. At the time of the attacks, Barack Obama was an local politician only known in Chicago, and largely unknown to the world. He wrote a short article for his local newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald, in which he reacted to the tragic events of that day and suggested a cautious approach to its repercussions. He stated-

The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity….

We will have to make sure, despite our rage, that any U.S. military action takes into account the lives of innocent civilians abroad. We will have to be unwavering in opposing bigotry or discrimination directed against neighbors and friends of Middle Eastern descent. Finally, we will have to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes of embittered children across the globe—children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin American, Eastern Europe, and within our own shores.

Obama’s emphasis on steering clear of blind rage and discrimination, as a way of blaming certain groups for the attacks, seems prophetic now. Over the last ten years, we have witnessed increasingly stringent immigration enforcement, and a steady dissolution of civil rights and attitudes towards immigrant communities, especially Muslim-Americans and South Asians. This view was echoed by Chris Hedges, a senior journalist and war correspondent who witnessed 9/11 and was plunged into its aftermath. In an address at a fundraising event on Sunday night as news of bin Laden’s death was creeping in, Hedges remembered-

When I was in New York, as some of you were, on 9/11, I was in Times Square when the second plane hit. I walked into The New York Times, I stuffed notebooks in my pocket and walked down the West Side Highway and was at Ground Zero four hours later. I was there when Building 7 collapsed. And I watched as a nation drank deep from that very dark elixir of American nationalism … the flip side of nationalism is always racism, it’s about self-exaltation and the denigration of the other.

The risks and backlash that both Obama and Hedges referenced have materialized over the last decade and placed the U.S. at a crucial crossroads where the decisions we take now will significantly impact the America of the future. In its fifth week, Breakthrough‘s human rights Facebook game America 2049 takes players to their mission in Phoenix, Arizona, which has been in someway the epicenter of the immigration debate.  In Phoenix, players confront heightened debates around severely restricted immigration policies. Players are also confronted with a scenario where ethnic celebrations and festivals have been outlawed for fear that “they promote dissent and unnecessarily emphasize differences between populations.” The game presents players with choices for how to address such a situation in the future, and by referencing historical artifacts, shows how our present could very well lead to the dytopic future that the game depicts. One example of this historical reference is a 1920s songbook – “O! Close the Gates.” (see photo) – that demonized immigrants in popular culture.

In Level 5 of America 2049, players also meet Cynthia Espinoza. Watch her testimonial about the need to preserve America’s multicultural heritage:

America 2049 addresses the rights of immigrants, including forced immigrant workers, in a country that has struggled to reach a rational solution to the “foreign threats” amplified by the attacks of 9/11. The attacks changed the immigration issue in America dramatically, sparking off a wave of new legislation or a tightening of existing ones. In an intriguing article, the Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) outlined five ways in which Osama bin Laden — and the 9/11 attacks he masterminded — altered the immigration landscape in the U.S. These include, perhaps most notoriously, the establishment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has been responsible for a growing number of deportations each year, as well as the now-canceled Secure Border Initiative network (SBInet) or the “virtual fence” that was planned for the entire stretch of US-Mexico border. The erosion of basic rights accelerated with the Patriot Act, which considerably expanded the government’s ability to conduct surveillance over Americans.

The calls for comprehensive immigration reform have intensified over the past few years, making it even more pressing to address the rights of immigrants who have no criminal records and are working hard to become part of American society. Another aspect of the immigration debate that is brought up in America 2049 is the degradation of immigrant worker rights and forced migration. While the tragedy of 9/11 caused the government to enforce stricter anti-immigrant legislation, one of the side effects has been the neglect of immigrant worker conditions. In America 2049, players discover an actual account by a Puerto Rican laborer at Camp Bragg, Rafael F. Marchan, who protested against his deplorable working conditions in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, such situations still exist today, as reported by the New York Times about a story of “500 Indian men hired by Signal International of Alabama for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina were confined in squalid camps, illegally charged for lodging and food, and subject to discrimination and abuse.” The fact that such forced servitude of immigrant workers continues a hundred years on from the example in America 2049 proves that prompt action must be taken to restore basic human rights for everyone.

So while the world celebrates the end of a tyrant, we must remember that more than celebrating a death, we must take this opportunity to work towards lasting peace and respect for basic rights for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or background. Osama bin Laden caused much havoc around the world and claimed countless innocent lives, but letting his actions be used as a reason for the dissolution of respect and rights for hard working, innocent people can simply not be justified. As a statement that circulated virally soon after bin Laden’s death was announced said- “If Osama Bin Laden is dead, can we have our rights back?” Ten years on, let’s make that our main goal.

Photo courtesy of Norton, et. al., A People and a Nation (5th ed., 1998)