In the Crosshairs

Manhunt Puts Middle Easterners at Mercy of Ordinary Americans

Cabbie-passenger relations in New York have never been perfect, what with midtown traffic and differences over routes and tips. Since September 11, though, a more disturbing stress has emerged for the 90 percent immigrant industry of 45,000yellow-cab drivers.

"Where are you from?" begins the grilling the overwhelmingly Arab and South Asian drivers get from riders, says Mamnunul Haq, driver and organizer with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. Given the widespread anxiety over beards, head coverings, and certain shades of skin, the stakes of daily frictions have risen. According to Haq, "A lot of drivers think that if something happens with a passenger, the passenger will report them" to authorities looking for more than an expired license.

The fear might seem silly if it hadn't already come true. Sometime after September 11, a Bangladeshi Muslim driver was arrested after arguing with a fare who quizzed him on his political views. The passenger called authorities, who reportedly found irregularities on some of the driver's identification documents. Friends have not heard from him and assume the immigrant is in an INS prison, says Haq. It's the worst case so far, but numerous tales of passenger harassment and slurs—"Osama" is a popular one—have the drivers on edge.

Indeed, it is an irony of the post-September 11 times that suspicion in the name of safety has brought only harm to some. Federal authorities have jailed over 1000 immigration violators, and tagged for questioning some 5000 visitors and students, from the Middle East without charging any with terrorist activity. Dozens of airport profiling cases and thousands of hate incidents have been tallied by Arab and South Asian advocacy groups. In all, there is "a cumulative effect of fear and apprehension," says Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

When the feds two weeks ago announced a campaign to rout 6000 Middle Eastern deportation dodgers from the country—overlooking for now the 308,000 from other regions—they effectively declared open season. In the mounting manhunt, the fate of a few has come to lie in the hands of a wary and not always well-intentioned many.

Last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft renewed the administration's mantra asking "citizens to be vigilant, to be alert to any possible threat." And citizens have been. In the two months after September 11 alone, the FBI received almost 435,000 terrorism-related tips.

Besides their leaders' urging, civilians have had millions of dollars for inspiration. At an October 10 press conference to unveil a list of most-wanted terrorists, Secretary of State Colin Powell said of a government cash-for-tips program, "Rewards for Justice is, as we say in the military, a force multiplier. It gives us millions of additional pairs of eyes and ears to be on the lookout."

Part of the State Department since 1984, Rewards for Justice loosed a publicity blitz in the news media after September 11 to promote a $25 million reward. "Prevent Terrorism" and "Do You Know a Terrorist?" are two PSAs. One poster features a photograph of suspected terrorist Mohammed Atta—except it omits his name, lending his image a generic quality. "What Can You Do?" it reads. "He lived among us, attending classes, shopping at the mall. . . . Sometimes you spot things that just don't add up. And that's the time to give us a call. . . . [I]f you had the power to make September 11th just like any other day—you'd do it, wouldn't you?"

The program has received approximately 24,000 tips since September 11. Some leads have been "significant," says program spokesman Walt Deering, although "we get a lot of emotionally disturbed people." Still, he says, "all it takes is one." The 1993 World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, was fingered by an associate for a reward of $2 million.

In late November, Ashcroft tossed a carrot to foreigners in the U.S. "[T]he United States welcomes any reliable and useful information that they can provide," he said. "In return, we will help them make America their home." (Critics denounced the offer as sugar-coating ethnic profiling. Some suspect worse: The reward for one noncitizen, who approached the FBI "because he thought he had information they would like to hear," was getting thrown in INS detention himself, says a New York-based lawyer.)

Soliciting leads from the public is a widely accepted part of good law enforcement. But FBI spokesman Steven Berry tells the Voice that the nearly half-million tips about terrorism have not yielded any suspects. Indeed, the one man charged in connection with September 11, Zacarias Moussaoui, was already in jail when the attacks occurred.

Yet while no terrorists have been found, the manhunt has put over 1000 Arabs and South Asians in jail. Most have noncriminal violations that might once have been overlooked, like having overstayed a tourist visa or not taken enough college credits to maintain a student visa. Often they are in regular prisons, cuffed at the wrists and ankles in the limited time spent outside of cells, allowed one phone call a week or month.

Attorneys and families have had trouble just finding them, since the Justice Department has refused to reveal the identities and whereabouts of most. But several lawyers and advocates for detainees say they are fairly certain of one thing, that authorities didn't find them all on their own.

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