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Scapegoats in the war on terror: the significance of the post-September 11 period takes on deeper meaning when considered against the backdrop of immigration and race politics within the last two decades.

While researching this book, I visited Hudson County Jail in New Jersey several times. My host on these visits was an inmate named Mark Joseph, a 30-year-old Haitian-American man who had shuttled through jail and detention prisons for 11 years. Mark grew up in Asbury Park, New Jersey, after being sponsored to the U.S. by his mother when he was ten. At 19, he was charged with conspiracy to commit murder, during a bar fight with his friends where someone got shot. Mark had naturalized as a citizen when his mother gained her citizenship, but after she died of cancer while he was serving his time, the INS began to contest his status. They went to extraordinary lengths to deny his citizenship claims. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request to produce his mother's citizenship papers; they demanded his birth certificate from Haiti. He took a blood test to prove that he is his mother's son; they claimed that the grandparents who raised him in Haiti are his actual parents.


At the time we met, Mark had been fighting INS attempts to deport him for six years. Housed at various times in Passaic and Hudson, two of the Northeast's major holding cells during the post-9/11 sweeps, he'd seen detainees "from every nationality, you name it" come and go. He'd seen them taken from their cells for deportation, he'd seen them punched and kicked by guards when they struggled against being taken. "The terrorism law is not hurting the terrorists, do you understand me? It's hurting people who have been here for years," Mark said from behind the Plexiglas in the visiting hall. "I've learned that society makes laws without understanding what they will do, without seeing how these laws affect people's lives."

Mark's story seemed to me significant because he stood at the intersection of several different enforcement trends that were converging in detention prisons. As a young, Black man, his life had been shaped by a well-known script of crime and punishment. As an immigrant, everything depended on his citizenship status, which, in this extreme case, was being taken from him, making him deportable. And finally, he'd been rendered an asylum-seeker forced to remain in detention as conditions in post-coup Haiti became more dangerous for him than prison in the U.S.

What does a criminal deportee have to do with a family seeking asylum, or an undocumented migrant or a Muslim post-9/11 detainee? In the expanded security system that deals with crime, immigration, asylum, borders and migration, all these people are treated as threats to national security. This same system disproportionately punishes noncitizens. If they commit a crime, they not only serve the sentence but then are exiled for life from the country. Any mistake becomes cause for detention and deportation, the loss of livelihoods and uprooting of families. Race, religion and national origin all dictate the terms upon which a person or a community is deemed suspect, monitored and regulated.

Within suspect communities, the profiling and policing done in the name of antiterrorism or immigration enforcement leads to remarkably similar results as the policing and imprisonment that African-American communities have faced under the war on drugs. These policies have turned up scant terrorism leads, no arrests related to the September 11 attacks and instead have netted thousands of people mostly for administrative violations and petty crime.

For noncitizens, the entry points into this security policing system are numerous. It could be from a traffic stop, domestic violence, a neighbor's tip to the FBI or upon arrival to the country as an asylum seeker. In Somali communities, chewing a traditional stimulant called khat has landed some people in deportation proceedings, since the leaf is now categorized as a controlled substance.

Law enforcement has been ratcheted up in suspect communities and that means from local police as well as federal immigration crackdowns and FBI scrutiny in the form of surveillance and questioning. These agencies have all sought ways to expand their powers and collaboration. The FBI now has the power to detain immigrants; the Border Patrol gained the power to deport without referring their arrests to the immigration courts. Police departments have for the most part resisted taking on immigration responsibilities, but that too is eroding. In Los Angeles, a city that maintained for two decades a separation of police and immigration powers, national security has provided the impetus for federal and local agencies to collaborate in pursuing suspected criminals and undocumented immigrants.

War on Drugs and Crime

The significance of the post-September 11 period--the round-ups, secret detentions, registration of Muslim males and raids within immigrant communities--all of the new policies and practices of the war on terror take on deeper meaning when considered against the backdrop of immigration and race politics within the last two decades.

Although President Nixon officially declared the nation's war on drugs in 1968, it wasn't until the 1980s that the government began an aggressive campaign to stop foreign production of narcotics, accompanied by an equally aggressive attack against communities of color in the U.S. Largely because of discriminatory rhetoric such as the "superpredator" myth, young men of color became the new urban threat. As a result, according to drug policy reform advocate Deborah Small, "virtually every drug war policy, from racial profiling to prosecutions to length of sentencing, is disproportionately carried out against people of color." Even though drug use rates across all ages are higher for whites, by 2002, 74 percent of people incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges were African Americans.

The 1980s also ushered in a rise in immigrant scapegoating that focused at first on illegal immigration and the burdens it represented for social services, jobs and other resources supposedly being sucked up by hordes of the undocumented. Concern over illegal immigration reached a level of obsession in the 1990s that was unmatched since the height of nativism during the '20s, according to Joseph Nevins in his book Operation Gatekeeper.

In 1996, Bill Clinton signed into law welfare reform and immigration reform, both of which had major repercussions for immigrants. Immigrants were initially cut off from all federal assistance, but later advocacy efforts restored their access to Supplemental Security Income and food stamp benefits.

Then came two more pieces of legislation that cemented a strong emphasis on crime in immigration law. Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) established guilt by association for anyone supporting even lawful political or humanitarian activities of any foreign group designated by the Secretary of State as terrorist. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) established mandatory detention for noncitizens with criminal convictions, expanding the list of offenses that made legal residents deportable to more than 50 categories of crimes. Together, these laws provided the underpinnings for the use of secret evidence, mandatory and indefinite detention and toughening of criminal provisions that radically increased the number of noncitizens subject to detention and would have far-reaching implications for immigrant communities.

The rate of immigrants in detention shot up as a result of the 1996 law, contributing to a total of about a million people who have been deported since the law went into effect. September 11 helped make it politically impossible to gain almost any relief for the "hardworking immigrants," much less advocate for those convicted of crimes. Yet "criminal aliens" are key to understanding how the post-9/11 practices draw from the tradition of policing an economic and political underclass.

Super Threats

Post-9/11, what has changed to the existing paradigm is the surge in suspicion and scapegoating that can employ the racialized language of illegal immigration, drugs and crime, and terrorism. This is a fluid language, as Chris Simcox and other nativists at the border have demonstrated. "To me, crime is a form of terrorism. Gangs are terrorists," Simcox said, updating the image of the superpredator into a super threat to national security whether he is a migrant border crosser, drug smuggler, gang member or potential terrorist.

Old, formerly discredited ideas about race and culture are on the ascendance once again. Represented by influential academics such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, these ideas espouse a view of Islam in a "clash of civilizations" with the West.

For Hassan Mohamud, who serves as imam of a Somali mosque in St. Paul, Minnesota, these ideas have dangerous consequences.

"If the war on terrorism is a war on Islam, then I have no optimism at all. Because if you are attacking one-fifth of the world, you are attacking the world," Mohamud said.

Minneapolis represents an example of how counterterrorism based on ethnic and religious profiling can seamlessly slip into stereotypes and wholesale targeting of a population. As one law enforcement officer told the local newspaper, "Minneapolis is close to the Canadian border, it has a large Muslim community, it's a nice place to live for terrorists."

The idea that a Muslim community is a potential safe haven for terrorists has gained traction from a largely one-sided public debate, Mohamud believes.

"The community is feeling a high level of scrutiny. Many of the people who give lectures at the mosque have quit. Even if they aren't saying anything against the government--just speaking about Islam, it looks like a crime. It draws attention to them," Mohamud explained. "How can a lot of people live in this fear from society? If I doubt and I fear my neighbor, it's not a healthy society."

A growing intolerance can be seen in the pressure ethnic and religious minorities have felt to go underground with their identities. Somalis have Americanized their names in order to apply for jobs and housing, Mohamud said. As imam, he receives calls asking him if it is halal (allowed) or haraam (forbidden) to change their Muslim names. Because Islam allows the bending of rules in circumstances of survival, Mohamud asks them to clarify whether they are being forced to do this or whether they have a choice.

"They answer that nothing is by choice now. So then you have to balance, how far is the fear?" Mohamud explained. "I decided it's not at the level where a person should change his name or values because of a threat to his life. So I say, don't change anything. Be the person you are, but fight for your rights."

More Enforcement Firepower

One of the biggest causes for concern over racial profiling has been the proliferation of heightened enforcement powers across federal and local agencies. In July 2003, a House bill was introduced called the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal (CLEAR) Act that would require local police to enforce all federal immigration laws or risk further loss of critical funds.

In the 1970s, Americans discovered that the FBI had maintained extensive dossiers on more than a million U.S. residents, including Martin Luther King Jr. and countless civil rights activists. Protections were established to prevent such intrusions from recurring. Under the drafted "Patriot II," which was revealed in February 2003, the government can simply issue a subpoena to compel a third party such as a doctor, librarian, friend, spouse or Internet service provider to turn information about citizens over to the government. It also would expand surveillance capabilities of federal agencies. Historically, such investigative powers have been used to monitor, disrupt and at times imprison people of color and immigrants who are advocating for civil rights and social justice.

There's been mounting opposition to the CLEAR Act and Patriot II from public officials to community groups to law enforcement. But creating safeguards against continued threats to civil rights will require more than blocking these new tools for discrimination. Some cities and states have enacted proactive legislation to protect immigrants. New York City and Seattle have passed ordinances precluding city officers or employees, including police officers, from inquiring about a person's immigration status.

Meanwhile, some communities are trying to change the face and definition of homeland security. Robin Toma, director of the California Commission on Human Relations, argued that the concept of "homeland security" needs to be broadened. "Right now, homeland security only covers the heightened police powers used to ferret out suspected terrorists; but it needs to be widened to include the security of people who are not terrorists but are hit by the backlash. Their security is also at risk."

Some organizations rooted in African-American communities are making the connections between their struggles and the struggles that immigrant communities are facing.

"People are saying, wait a minute, let's pause and look at this," pointed out John Jackson, an African-American community organizer in Los Angeles. "The government and mainstream media have been able to avoid a real awareness that these raids and mass incarceration are actually taking place. Unless you are really close to those communities, it's happening beyond your awareness. But this is a system that's doing to one aspect of the population what they're really interested in doing to all."

Whose Security?

As the roundups and raids have lessened in the years following the crisis, those policies born after 9/11 are being integrated and absorbed into systemwide practice toward all immigrants.

"Though still stuck in national security rhetoric, the impact of these initiatives are no longer September 11-related in the way you and I think they are which is impacting South Asians, Arabs, Muslims," said Sin Yen Ling, an attorney at Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund who has represented pro bono hundreds of detainees. "The way it's playing out, the language, rhetoric and initiatives initially used against South Asians, Arabs, Muslims are being enforced against all immigrants."

The post-9/11 crisis was but one part of a continuum of conflict surrounding communities targeted by the war at home. Most crucial in overcoming the discriminatory policies of the war on terror is exposing the implicit question in the phrases "national security" or "homeland security." That question is: "security for whom?" Thus far the answer has not included communities of color.

Tram Nguyen is executive editor of ColorLines.

From the book We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant Communities after 9/11. Reprinted by arrangement with Beacon Press.

RELATED ARTICLE: We Are All Suspects Now: Book Tour

Author Tram Nguyen will discuss her book in the following cities:


September 7

Book Passage, Corte Madera

September 8

Stacey's Bookstore, San Francisco

September 12

Cody's Bookstore, Berkeley


September 15


September 15

Book Release Party at

Applied Research Center


September 19

University of Massachussetts

September 19

Book Release Party at Beacon Press

September 20

Harvard Coop


September 22

Poets & Busboys


October 13

University Bookstore


October 17

University of Minnesota


October 18

57th Street Books

October 19

DePaul Barnes and Noble

To schedule an event, please contact Andre Banks at the Applied Research Center, 212-513-7925.

For more information, visit

$14.00 USD, 208 pages, Paperback, Beacon Press, ISBN: 0-8070-0461-8

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Title Annotation:feature
Author:Nguyen, Tram
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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