News & Politics

In the Crosshairs


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.

“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.

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