Cracking Down on Immigrants—Again

As Ashcroft Pushes Harsh Laws in Congress, a Pakistani Student From New York Is Beaten While in INS Custody

Hasnain was nervous about getting on an airplane in the week after hijackers rammed jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, so instead of flying back to New York to begin his new semester at CUNY's La Guardia College, the 20-year-old Pakistani national decided to take the bus. On Tuesday night, September 18, he boarded a Greyhound in Houston, where he had been visiting relatives. Early Wednesday morning, border patrol guards from the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the bus and detained him on a visa violation. On Friday, the aunt who had just bid him farewell was picking him up in New Orleans, and had trouble recognizing her nephew's fine features beneath the bruises and swelling that distorted his face.

Apparently President Bush's admonitions against attacking Arab and Muslim immigrants (and those mistaken for them) have not penetrated government-run institutions. While in the custody of the INS—and being held in Stone County Correctional Facility in Wiggins, Mississippi—Hasnain was brutally beaten by three white inmates he describes as "huge." Calling him Bin Laden and threatening to kill him, the men punched his face, banged his head against the wall, and stomped on his back. They stripped him naked and belted his buttocks with a shoe. A week after the assault, Hasnain still couldn't hear out of his left ear or eat solid food because of the pain in his jaw. His tongue was swollen and a foot-long bruise snaked along his back.

While Hasnain's experience is the most extreme to have surfaced so far, immigrant advocates around the country are increasingly alarmed by reports of violence, harassment, and the draconian application of immigration laws against INS detainees from countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

Detention’s "never-never land": This 22-year-old, who fled Iraq to avoid military service, has been in INS custody since July 1999.
photo: Steve Rubin
Detention’s "never-never land": This 22-year-old, who fled Iraq to avoid military service, has been in INS custody since July 1999.

With hundreds of immigrants rounded up for questioning in the last two weeks, serious concerns about civil liberties have been raised on the right and the left. But the INS was hardly going easy on immigrants before. There were 20,000 people in INS detention prior to September 11, and attorneys worry that the predicament of many of them will now get even worse. Moreover, they see the very statutes and structures they have long decried as allowing for cruel treatment of immigrants being aggressively exploited now and even exacerbated. They fear that punishing new laws proposed by Attorney General Ashcroft will further overwhelm the system, violate human rights, and destroy families, without achieving any significant new protections against terrorism.

After all, that is exactly what happened after Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Though McVeigh was a homegrown terrorist, the Newt Gingrich-led Congress in 1996 responded to his act by passing a series of "anti-terrorist" immigration statutes—laws so severe that some of them were modified by the Supreme Court. "After the '96 laws, we didn't think things could get any worse," says Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC). "But they just did."

As a result of the '96 laws, the number of INS detainees skyrocketed, making immigrants the fastest-growing segment of America's exploding jail population. Human rights groups issued report after report denouncing the Kafkaesque nature of the new laws. Not only did the laws mandate the detention of asylum seekers arriving in the U.S. without documents, they also widened the definition of what constitutes a felony and then, applying the law retroactively, required the deportation and mandatory detention of immigrants who had committed such offenses. Thus, otherwise law-abiding legal residents who had committed minor nonviolent crimes—even some who had served out sentences for them decades before—got knocks on the door from INS officials out of the blue, were served with deportation orders, and locked up.

In recent months, it looked like the excesses of 1996 were finally being reined in. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the government may not imprison immigrants indefinitely, that legal residents are entitled to have their cases reviewed by a court before facing deportation, and that new deportation rules could not be applied retroactively. Meanwhile, various bills were pending in Congress to overturn some of the harshest measures of the '96 laws. And after Mexican president Vicente Fox's triumphant tour of the U.S. last month, it even seemed likely that progressive new policies would be implemented to help thousands of undocumented families regularize their status.

But on September 18, Ashcroft introduced emergency measures that extended from 24 to 48 hours the time the INS can hold someone without charges—and that even allow for holding immigrants indefinitely "in the event of emergency or other extraordinary circumstance."

The sweeping package of fresh "anti-terrorism" legislation that the Justice Department is sending to Congress also tries to exploit little loopholes in the Supreme Court rulings of June. Among other things, it would allow the attorney general to lock up immigrants suspected even of tenuous association with "terrorist" organizations and order them deported without presenting any evidence. What is more, there would be extremely limited opportunities for immigrants to appeal. "The government may need some expanded powers," says Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), "but the law has to provide protection against mistake and abuse. That's why we have judicial review and evidentiary standards. If suspicion and fear are enough grounds to lock people up forever, that makes us a police state."

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