NEW YORK - Since 9/11, millions of words have been written about the "terrorists
in our midst." Most congratulated U.S. law enforcement for finding and
jailing them. Fewer questioned whether the principles of American human rights
and civil liberties were being compromised by an overzealous government gripped
But according to the American
Civil Liberties Union, both sides of this controversy have usually overlooked
something important in this delicate minuet of constitutional protections versus
another terrorist attack: the human faces of "the other victims" of
the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the days and weeks following those incidents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) rounded up and imprisoned thousands of immigrants and visitors to the
United States. Now, in a new report, "Worlds
Apart," the ACLU documents what happened to 13 of these targets and
"how deporting immigrants after 9/11 tore families apart and shattered
The story of how Washington responded to 9/11 has been written about extensively,
but remains relatively little-known. The short version, from the ACLU report,
is that the United States "incarcerated petitioners in degrading and inhumane
"Although the immigrants generally were detained on non-criminal immigration
charges, many were kept in cells for 23 hours a day and were made to wear hand
and leg shackles when leaving their cells.... Lights were left on 24 hours a
day, immigrants were denied the use of blankets, and many were denied telephone
calls and visits with family members."
For many, says the ACLU, "the nightmare began with their arrest. FBI and
immigration officials dragged some people out of their houses in the middle
of the night in front of frightened wives and children. Others were picked up
for being in the wrong place," like the man "arrested by agents who
had come looking for his roommate but took him instead."
Conditions in U.S. detention facilities the country's most secretive
prison system have been chronicled by Mark Dow, a former employee of
a detention facility, in his chilling book, American
Gulag. "Long before Abu Ghraib, and even before Sept. 11, detainees
in America's immigration prisons were being stripped, beaten, and sexually abused,"
These facilities were operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service
(INS), now part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
None of the thousands of people detained by the INS were found guilty of any
terrorism-related offense or connected in any way with the 9/11 attacks, the
ACLU says, adding, "Yet the Justice Department Web site still boasts that
hundreds of immigrants 'linked to the Sept. 11 investigation' have been deported."
The ACLU report charges "the government's unlawful policies had profound
effects not only on the people who were unlawfully imprisoned but also on their
families and communities. Families were torn apart. Communities were shattered."
"And the stories told in this report are just a sample. For each of [them],
there are hundreds of similar stories that haven't been told. Children separated
from fathers, wives separated from husbands, parents separated from sons."
The stories of the 13 deportees chronicled in the new report are based on interviews
with deportees in Pakistan, arranged with the help of the Pakistan Human Rights
They vary widely. Says the report: "Some men drove cabs, some delivered
pizzas, and still others pumped gas. Some spoke Urdu and others Arabic. Some
came from tiny villages, others from major, cosmopolitan cities. Some had children
who attended public schools, speaking perfect English and playing basketball
with American friends."
"Others supported their families in Pakistan or Jordan, sending money
for school fees, home repairs or life-saving medicines. Many had been here for
years, others for only a few months."
But, says the ACLU, "the stories of these men are similar in important
ways. All came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and
their families. All were Muslim, from South Asia or the Middle East."
Many, adds the report, "have been deported to countries where they haven't
lived in years, and where unemployment rates are high and salaries are low.
Many have been harassed because of their connections to the U.S. or taunted
for being deported."
For example, "Sadek Awaed's friends in Jersey City, New Jersey, stopped
speaking to him after the FBI questioned him and suggested that he was involved
with terrorists. Asylum-seeker Benamar Benatta, who is still behind bars in
New York, worries that the charges will haunt him if he ends up being returned
"Haneen is the 14-year-old U.S.-born daughter of Khaled Abu-Shabayek,"
continues the report. "Her family moved to Jordan in 2002 after her father
was detained and deported. 'I can't take it anymore, and I'm very angry', the
girl said. 'Everyone [in my family], they're always angry, they're not happy.'"
"Anza is the 9-year-old daughter of Khurram Altaf. For the first time
this year, she will not be able to attend the special school that accommodates
her hearing disability such schools don't exist in Pakistan, where she
moved after her father was deported."
Deportees' communities in the United States were damaged, too, the report says.
"Neighborhoods that were vibrant and full are suddenly half-empty and quiet.
Merchants are struggling; many have been forced out of business. And people
are scared that they could be the next to be awakened in the middle of the night
by immigration officials."
Dalia Hashad, an ACLU lawyer based in Washington, told IPS she believes the
U.S. government's treatment of Arabs and Muslims "is likely to get worse,
"Now that the Bush administration is not facing reelection, we can expect
increased harassment of Arabs and Muslims, citizens and non-citizens alike.
Under the new attorney general, it is likely there will be more deportations
and more 'terror-related' criminal prosecutions."
"The Justice Department and the DHS immigration authorities claim they
are 'reaching out' to these communities, and trying to hire them as FBI agents,
but at the same time [they are] arresting its members," added Hashad.
The ACLU reports that in January 2004 lawyers filed a petition with the United
Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of the 13 men who
had been detained in the United States, and whose stories are told in the new
report. All but one of the petitioners has now been deported. The UN's response
to the petition is pending.
The ACLU report concludes: "In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, the
people whose stories are told in this report did not count. The United States
government arrested them without suspicion, imprisoned them without charge,
and abused them without consequence. All of this took place in secret. To this
day, the government still refuses to release the names of the people who were
In a democratic society, it adds, "the government should not be permitted
to sweep human beings under the rug, to pretend that they don't count. The government
should not be permitted to make people disappear."
(Inter Press Service)