In the Crosshairs

Manhunt Puts Middle Easterners at Mercy of Ordinary Americans

"It's not always clear to us where the tip came from, [but] it would seem somebody snitched," says Bryan Lonegan, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society in New York. He describes several cases in which Middle Eastern men were picked up at work or home, where their presence was known principally to coworkers, landlords, or neighbors. "I never got a sense with any of these cases that there was a [random] raid," he says.

Criticism directed at the Legal Aid Society reflects the bias dogging immigrants these days, Lonegan says. The frequent accusation is, " 'You're representing terrorists,' " he says. "No, we're representing immigrants."

That lack of distinction in the public's mind is no accident, say critics of policies that target particular groups. The drive to persecute immigrants is clearly compensating for a failure to prosecute terrorists, says Juliette Kayyem, a terrorism expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former member of Congress's terrorism commission.

"Because it's so easy, immigration will be a way to show we're doing something," she says. "My personal opinion is, that's because John Ashcroft is desperate."

Indeed, the Justice Department did not say any of the 6000 Middle Easterners it wants to deport are involved in terrorism. Nevertheless, the official statement read, "Terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda within the United States are a continuing threat to Americans. We will continue to focus investigative, intelligence-gathering and enforcement operations on individuals in the U.S. from countries with highly active Al Qaeda networks to protect Americans."

Such government policies "may lead your average American to think, 'Oh, Mr. So-and-so, who's Arab or Muslim, whom I don't like very much—I should report him to the INS,' " says Tim Edgar, legislative counsel to the ACLU. "I guess I can't be opposed to vigilance," he says, "but there may be actions taken by those with mixed motives."

Already, several such actions have been reported around the country. In one of them, a New Yorker named Jack Barresi falsely told the FBI that his fiancée's boss, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani ancestry who manages a discount store, had told him, "I can't wait for you Americans to die." Before Barresi was found out, "[FBI] agents thoroughly investigated the manager's background, subjected him to extensive questioning, [and] discussed whether he would undergo polygraph testing," according to a court document submitted by the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn, which won Barresi's January 2 conviction.

One lawyer who knows of the case says a noncitizen accused of the same remark could have gone to prison. Many standard legal safeguards—like the right to know one's charges and accuser—were eliminated for immigrants in 1996, after Timothy McVeigh's terrorist act buoyed politicians looking for an excuse to link evil with the Middle East.

Legislation after September 11 raised the walls around INS detainees higher. Ashcroft has, for instance, routinely stayed immigration judges' release orders, keeping immigrants in prison even when they have agreed to leave the country.

Given the daunting possibilities, immigrants from suspect nations feel fenced in by fear, say community advocates, assuming the slightest transgression or misunderstanding could plunge them into a real-life nightmare.

The irony is, groups under scrutiny today might have found sympathy in the Bush administration before September 11. Dozens of jailings on false accusations and secret evidence following the 1996 anti-terrorism law had the Muslim and Middle Eastern communities up in arms. In a televised debate with Al Gore, Bush said, "We've got to do something about that."

It was a vague statement, but it won him an estimated 70 percent or more of the typically Democratic Muslim vote, adding millions to his column in a famously tight race. But while a pre-September 11 congressional bill to abolish secret evidence survives, observers doubt such remedies will come soon.

"The hope is, enough vocal criticism of the route the administration is taking will create some checks," says Kayyem. But "there's not a lot of love right now for Arab or Middle Eastern immigrants," and "there's absolutely no political will" left around keeping the government from doing with them what it will.

Nor is litigation an easy way to protect abused immigrants, says Edgar of the ACLU, which is itching to mount a precedent-setting challenge to defend the rights of detainees. But, he says, restrictive anti-terrorism legislation demands a case with just the right mix of circumstances.

For now, then, there is no guarantee against a foreigner's unfair persecution or imprisonment based on biased, false, or simply overzealous accusations. It is a peculiar and precarious situation, in which the fate of a few hinges largely on the mercy of others—at a time when mercy is not the main message.

« Previous Page