We Are All New Yorkers

August 21: Immigrants' rights rally in Queens
photo: Jake Price/Sipa Press

Pick a street, any street, in any immigrant neighborhood in New York, and ask residents how they've been faring over the last couple of years under George W. Bush. You'll discover—as the grassroots group Families for Freedom has been finding in its corner-by-corner surveys—that the city's population inhabits two parallel universes: one for citizens, one for everybody else. Certainly low-wage immigrant workers stand on the far bank of the ever expanding income gap. But as keenly as those who deliver the city's pizzas, immigrants who deliver its babies are feeling the squeeze of the Bush administration's draconian policies and aggressive enforcement.

"Whenever the terror warnings come out, our community gets just as scared of what the American government will do to us," says Jagajit Singh, director of programs at the Council of Pakistani Organizations in Midwood, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that has seen thousands of its men harassed, detained, or deported—first through post-9-11 roundups and then through the "special registration" program that required men from 25 predominantly Muslim countries to appear in immigration offices for interviews and fingerprinting. "People believe that the administration hates us and wants us out," Singh adds.

But it's not just in Muslim enclaves like Midwood where this sentiment hangs in the air like an enervating humidity. Immigrants from all over the world, especially from Latin America and the Caribbean, are finding their communities just as devastated by detentions and deportations and a general sense that they are no longer welcome. In diverse neighborhoods around New York, Families for Freedom found that more than half of the noncitizens surveyed—a majority of them green-card holders—said they were afraid to seek help from government agencies. A stunning 60 percent said they believe the government is making New York City unsafe for immigrants. About as many said they knew someone who had been deported—and in Flatbush, that number hit 80 percent. From Jackson Heights to Washington Heights, the "war on terror" is being experienced as a war on immigrants.

Ask Donald Anthonyson, who found himself plucked from the security-check line at the Puerto Rico airport in May on his way back to New York from a routine business trip to his native Antigua. As a dreads-wearing Rastafarian, "I'm used to the extra searches," he says wryly. But he still hasn't gotten over the shock of being handcuffed, sent to a waiting room for a couple of hours, and then tossed into detention and deportation proceedings as a "criminal alien" because the airport computer showed he had a 1986 conviction. It was a misdemeanor (an inoperable but unregistered gun was found in his house: illegal possession of a weapon) and the penalty was a $200 fine, which he paid right away. He's had no problems with the law ever since.

On the contrary. Later in 1986 Anthonyson was granted permanent residency in the U.S., and since then he twice applied for and got permission to extend the period of time a green-card holder can stay out of the country. Over the last 17 years he crossed the American border dozens of times without any trouble. Now, though his U.S.-citizen mother, siblings, and children live here, Anthonyson is slated to go before an immigration judge in early September and defend himself against Uncle Sam's swift boot.

Citing the case of Ansar Mahmood, a young Pakistani who was deported on August 12 for the felony of "harboring illegal aliens"—he helped a Pakistani couple find an apartment—Anthonyson says he's not optimistic. Mahmood had the support of community citizens who had organized on his behalf, and even of Senator Chuck Schumer; Anthonyson can't afford a lawyer.

The legal infrastructure supporting the deportation charges against Anthonyson, Mahmood, and hundreds of thousands of others was established with restrictive laws pushed through by the Newt Gingrich Congress (and signed by Bill Clinton) in 1996. But the Bush administration has built elaborately upon it. Worse—as in other policy realms—it has bypassed Congress and used various executive orders and backdoor means to press its extreme agenda.

In countless ways administration policies have decimated neighborhoods, torn families apart, cavalierly returned asylum-seekers and torture survivors to the places they fled, and eroded due process for noncitizens. Among the means, shortly after 9-11—along with extending the period of time a person could be detained without charges and chipping away at judges' discretion to set bond or release detainees—Attorney General John Ashcroft gutted the Board of Immigration Appeals (where those facing deportation could bring a reasonable challenge to the order) and purged it of liberal judges.

The climate worsened after the long-beleaguered Immigration and Naturalization Service was dissolved in 2003 and its functions divided between a bureau dealing with such matters as visa renewals and naturalization (U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, or USCIS), and another, residing in the Department of Homeland Security, whose job it is to crack down (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE). As advocates predicted, USCIS has been starved for funds, and routine applications—as in INS days—can take months, even years. Scores of men who showed up for "special registration" were put into deportation proceedings only because applications for, say, status through a family sponsor had been stuck in the backlog. What's more, immigrants with pending applications who show up for USCIS appointments, but are found to have some lingering violation, are handed over by the service division to the cold claws of ICE.

Meanwhile, adopting the attitude of its parent institution, ICE regards immigrants as a suspect, dangerous class. A confidential U.N. report on airport inspectors recently leaked to The New York Times stated that "the overuse of restraints, such as at J.F.K., and the frequency of negative, and at times hostile, attitudes toward asylum-seekers, is of significant concern." The agency's response? In mid August DHS announced that it would extend to border agents the power to deport, summarily, undocumented immigrants at land crossings.

The hostile "culture of no" bred at ICE has filtered down into the general atmosphere, says Donna Nevel, a member of the staff collective at the Center for Immigrant Families in Upper Manhattan. "Our members feel it in schools and any institutions they have to deal with," she says. "There's a sense that a security mentality has taken over everything and given people license for xenophobia and racism."

It's no wonder, given that one agency after another has been pressed into serving the war on immigrants, whether it wants to or not. The week before last, the Department of Health and Human Services declared that in order to receive Medicaid funding, hospitals would have to collect information on patients' immigration status—even though medical personnel say such a policy has grave public health implications. Likewise, although police in half a dozen major cities (including New York) have refused to become immigration agents—not least because they need the trust of the communities they serve—a national crime database includes the names of those who have committed visa violations. If a cop pulls people over for, say, not wearing seat belts, he or she is expected to deliver them to ICE. Even the Department of Motor Vehicles has been sending letters to drivers with unverified Social Security numbers and threatening to revoke their licenses. And now the DMV is requiring immigrants to prove legal status when they apply for or renew their licenses.

"All this overzealous enforcement is just besieging communities, wasting resources, and not making anyone safer," says Judith Golub, senior director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. But the fix—a sensible immigration policy—is not likely to come from the Republican Party, which is internally split between nativists who want to keep everybody out, and free-marketeers who want to let cheap labor in. Last month, the White House asked Senate Republican leaders to block legislation intended to help immigrant farmworkers establish legal residency, despite its veto-proof bipartisan support, even as Bush was making speeches about America as "the nation of the open door."

Who's paying the price? The households in Washington Heights whose breadwinners have been dumped back in the Dominican Republic. The construction workers in Midwood who are out of a job because their boss was deported to Islamabad. The Guyanese wife missing work, depleting her bank account, and risking eviction from her Bushwick apartment so she can visit the husband whisked away to detention in a 1,000-bed facility in Oakdale, Louisiana. The CUNY student from Ecuador who drops out to work more hours after his brothers have been sent away. Stand on the corner as Families for Freedom conducts its survey and you'll hear their stories. And realize, too, that we all—citizen and noncitizen alike—pay the price when the vibrancy of our communities, when New York's very identity, is tarnished by such assault and such loss.

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