NY Immigrants Underground


Raj, 27 and from India, was smoking a cigarette outside the school where he took computer classes last fall when a white man walked up and sucker-punched him in the face. The same stranger had earlier taunted him, shouting, “You Muslims all grow up to be terrorists.” The police officer who met with Raj in the emergency room refused to write down the phrase.

Raj (not his real name) found an attorney to help him lodge a bias complaint, both about the assault and the officer’s conduct. During a meeting with a New York City prosecutor, his lawyer thought to ask, just in case, “if there would be trouble” for her client. After all, “Raj was South Asian, male, single, and between the ages of 18 and 33,” she explained to the Voice, a profile government investigators had been targeting since September 11. He had a green card, so he should have been safe from the INS sweeps that have landed more than 1000 Middle Easterners and Muslims in detention. But then again, maybe he wasn’t so safe.

The prosecutor was honest. If the feds came snooping, he said, Raj’s nationality—and a criminal record reflecting a store robbery—could land him behind bars, no matter that he was the victim in this case. “That’s not a risk we wanted to take,” said Raj’s lawyer. In fact, the conversation with the prosecutor so shook her, a hate crimes specialist not easily spooked by the system, that she advised Raj “to go underground. We suggested that when the prosecutor’s office called him, not to return the calls. We told him never to apply for citizenship, not to leave the country and expect to come back, and if he sees a cop, to go the other way.”

Raj’s fate may seem dramatic, but going underground is what many perfectly innocent immigrants in the city have opted to do as official scrutiny of them increases. “We have been doubly victimized by acts of racism, violence, bigotry,” first by the perpetrators and then by the institutions that are supposed to help, said Emira Habiby-Browne, executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC), to a panel of Bloomberg and Bush representatives last Tuesday. She pointed out that many immigrants had left authoritarian countries expecting to find greater freedom in the U.S. and certainly in New York City, where 43 percent of residents are foreign-born.

Yet anxiety in immigrant enclaves and ethnic media has surged following the Justice Department’s recent proposal to deputize local police as INS agents. An informal crackdown has continued since last September, immigrant advocates claim, with Arab and South Asian taxi drivers being stopped by NYPD for identification, and immigrants who report crimes being questioned themselves about their status.

The May 14 public forum, sponsored by AAFSC and held in downtown Brooklyn, was perhaps the first ever to bring together federal and local officials with members of the city’s Arab and South Asian communities. The point, said Habiby-Browne, was to elicit reassurances that “if something happens, authorities will be there to help them, not arrest them.”

Far from reassuring people, however, the officials ended up “passing the buck,” said Habiby-Browne. Indeed, the mood of the event was sometimes bizarrely incongruous with the feelings of isolation and persecution attendees expressed on index cards they handed in stacks to the moderator. Officials chuckled with relief when the microphone was passed to a colleague. Ester Fuchs, a senior adviser to Michael Bloomberg, read aloud a letter from the mayor stating, “We must be vigilant in our fight against hate and discrimination of any kind.” She later urged immigrants who felt powerless to “become citizens and vote.”

City Human Rights Commissioner Patricia Gatling roused some warmth from the audience, empathizing as a black woman with the racism they experienced. But in the end, her advice seemed to miss the mark. “You write letters,” she said. “Show up in court.”

NYPD Community Affairs Commissioner Fredrick Patrick drew by far the most ire, particularly over the department’s involvement in a federal initiative to arrest immigrants with outstanding deportation orders. Of the 314,000 such immigrants in the country, the Justice Department has prioritized the roundup of fewer than 1000, “from countries in which there has been an active al Qaeda presence.” The NYPD has arrested some 50 immigrants so far, Patrick said.

How could the NYPD reconcile these arrests with department policy prohibiting racial profiling, a lawyer asked. “The list had immigrants from 40 different countries. I’m not sure we can say it’s selective,” Patrick replied. Subhash Kateel, an organizer with the Jackson Heights-based South Asian rights group Desis Rising Up & Moving, exploded, “That’s like saying the police aren’t racially profiling because the black Americans they apprehend are descendants from 30 different countries in Africa.” His group visits local prisons believed to hold the majority of immigrants picked up nationwide, and he says all are Arab, South Asian, or Muslim.

Patrick advised immigrants to bring their concerns to monthly precinct meetings or local commanders. “Why would these people go to a meeting with the police department?” Kateel asked. “There’s one branch [of the department] that’s detaining people, and we’re supposed to bring our civil rights complaints to another branch?”

Ultimately, said Habiby-Browne, “They really kept putting the burden back on us. When we asked, ‘What assurance do we have that you’re going to protect us, not arrest and detain us?’ they did not respond. How are they going to tell us, ‘Come to us, nothing’s going to happen to you,’ when it’s already happening?”

Yet advocates acknowledged the forum was a beginning, noting that Arabs and South Asians are a fledgling voice in city politics. Responding to criticism, the NYPD last week issued a statement clarifying its relationship with the feds: “The NYPD works cooperatively with the INS and other federal agencies to locate and apprehend criminal aliens. . . . However, the NYPD does not and will not enforce civil violations of immigration laws.” Immigrant groups and the City Council’s Black and Hispanic Caucus are demanding that no city employee engage in immigration enforcement at all. Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Sayu Bhojwani told the Voice last week that the Bloomberg administration is exploring ways to implement such a policy without bucking federal law.

Meanwhile, justice continues to elude Raj and others, like a Pakistani American home owner in Brooklyn. Someone recently threw a brick through his window, then the house was pelted with eggs, and someone even may have tried to break in. A neighbor told the police a group of white teens was responsible and that he would be able to identify them. But the home owner had rented rooms out to several undocumented Muslims, whose freedom he believed would be jeopardized if he pressed ahead. So he didn’t. Neither did the undocumented Syrian couple who were so terrified of being discovered that they didn’t call the fire department when a blaze broke out in their apartment.

Habiby-Browne believes that the scores of callers to the center’s hotline—reporting crises ranging from racist attacks on schoolchildren to employment discrimination—are all wary of the authorities. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t be calling us.”

At Tuesday’s forum, a representative of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission bluntly acknowledged immigrants’ fears. The EEOC shares Lower Manhattan office space with, of all agencies, the INS. He hardly expected immigrants to show up in droves, he said, calling it “a terrible irony.”