From Baghdad to Brooklyn


“Why did you place the bomb?” “What will cause it to explode?” “Where is the bomb?” These are some of the questions on a “bomb threat checklist” that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) recommends mosques and other Muslim, Arab, and South Asian community organizations keep posted near their phones in the increasingly likely case that someone rings up with a threat. The idea is to keep the caller on the line as long as possible, take down a detailed description of the voice, and quite possibly save some lives. The checklist is part of a “safety kit” that CAIR began distributing to mosques and Islamic centers across the country last week as the war on Iraq began producing the “collateral damage” of hate crimes at home. Panic is running high in communities that saw murders, arson, assaults, and countless acts of violence after 9-11—and that are now hearing anti-Muslim vitriol spill out of right-wing radio as it cheers on the war.

CAIR has recorded more than a dozen serious new incidents in March alone. On Saturday, Larme Price, saying he was motivated by a desire to punish people of Middle Eastern descent after the attacks of 9-11, confessed to killing four New York immigrants. An Afghan American was severely injured last Monday when two people burst into his restaurant in Indianapolis and set him on fire; projectiles were fired at a mosque in suburban Chicago; graffiti scrawled around the campus at San José State University warned that “Muslims will be shot”; in Illinois, a Muslim family’s van was destroyed with an explosive device; in a Pathmark parking lot in Essex County, New Jersey, a man from Pakistan was beaten unconscious by two white men screaming profanities about Islam.

Even the FBI, in its weekly bulletin to 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, warned on March 12 that hate crimes against those perceived to be Arab would be likely to increase when the troops moved on Iraq. Citing the wave of bias crimes the bureau began investigating in the three weeks immediately following 9-11, the bulletin stated, “War with Iraq or a terrorist incident is likely to precipitate a similar increase in crimes against Arab-Americans.”

Given the red alert on hate crimes, advocacy and community groups in New York’s immigrant neighborhoods are trying a range of strategies to defend local residents and allay their fears. Many are hosting know-your-rights and safety workshops; some are even steering people to self-defense classes. But they charge that the city is not doing enough to help. According to Gerard Cole, a spokesperson for the NYPD, the police department has not sent out any special beat cops on details in communities where bigots may be trolling for targets of opportunity.

Worse, advocates say, the city has not done enough to assure immigrants who may be victims of attacks that they can approach the police without fearing they’ll be turned over to immigration authorities. Reporting of hate crimes to law enforcement officials has long been fraught for these communities. Indeed, in the post-9-11 period in which the FBI counted 414 cases, CAIR clocked more than 1,700. But now the anxiety is at an all-time high. Though Cole says that it’s NYPD policy not to inform on crime victims, currently no law prevents them from doing so. What’s more, word is out in the communities—justifiably or not—that cops are colluding in arrests of visa violators. And besides, over the last year and a half, immigrants from Muslim, Arab, and South Asian backgrounds have had ample reason to become wary of anyone in a uniform.

First, the post-9-11 sweeps in Muslim and Arab neighborhoods that resulted in thousands of detentions and deportations seemed to contradict the president’s official condemnation of hate crimes immediately following the twin tower attacks. The roundups were experienced as racial profiling of the lowest order, tearing apart families and disrupting whole communities. In a category of incidents not compiled by the FBI—”FBI/Police/INS intimidation”—CAIR counted 224 reported cases.

Then came “special registration,” the requirement that non-immigrant visitors from countries deemed to be of the “highest terrorism risk” report to INS offices to be photographed and fingerprinted. The program has decimated neighborhoods like Midwood, Brooklyn, which has seen hundreds of breadwinners detained because of visa violations, and hundreds more trying to flee to Canada.

And now, the federal government has reported a war contingency plan to enlist the Joint Terrorism Task Force—which includes state and local police, among them the NYPD—in selectively targeting thousands of Iraqi and other immigrants for interviews and investigations. FBI officials have repeatedly stated that anyone found in immigration violation during these sweeps will be detained.

“People are really afraid,” says Ahmad Razvi, a co-director of the Council of Pakistan Organization, a community center in Midwood founded in the wake of 9-11. “FBI, INS, police—they’ve gone to businesses and homes in this neighborhood conducting raids. Why would our people trust them?”

Twenty-year-old Mohamad, for one, does not. A resident of Midwood since coming from Pakistan at age 14, Mohamad was stabbed in the stomach in January in the foyer of his building as he returned home from his job stocking groceries. Today, an eight-inch scar runs like train tracks up his slender torso where 40 stitches closed the three-inch-deep wound. With his hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his baggy jeans and his gaze fixed vacantly on the floor, Mohamad recounts the ordeal: “Three guys chased me into my building. They punched me. One pulled the knife. That was it.” But when the ambulance arrived Mohamad told the paramedics a different story. “I said I stabbed myself,” he says. “I don’t have no papers, no documents. I didn’t want to make a police report.”

Mohamad was brought to New York on a visitor’s visa seven years ago by his father, who has since passed away, leaving Mohamad and his brother to support their mother in their Brooklyn apartment—and their five sisters back home in Karachi. His father feared that Mohamad couldn’t help getting caught up in the political gang violence that consumes young men in Pakistan. “He said coming here I could do something good with my life instead of ending up in jail over there,” Mohamad says. “All the guys back home have guns. If I get sent back, I’m afraid they’re gonna kill me or I’m gonna go to jail.”

Working behind the counter at a sweets shop now—lifting boxes at the grocery store is out of the question because of damage the stabbing did to his internal organs—Mohamad sometimes fears leaving his apartment, too. “It comes in my brain that maybe it’s gonna happen again,” he says of the assault.

Back in 1989, then mayor Edward Koch issued an executive order that prohibited city employees—cops, welfare workers, health professionals, teachers—from passing information about someone’s immigration status to federal officials (unless that person was accused of committing a crime). But that order lost its teeth when Congress passed draconian immigration and welfare laws in 1996 that required such reporting. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani went to court to protect the city’s immigrants, arguing that the new laws were infringing on the city’s right to regulate the conduct of its own workers. His challenge was dismissed, and the dismissal was upheld on appeal as courts ruled that federal laws have supremacy over local ones.

But the court of appeals acknowledged that state and local governments do have a vital need to provide confidentiality in a range of instances and suggested that a valid policy would be one that was general—not directed solely at immigration authorities, but instead concerned with the city’s ability to decide how to handle information obtained in the course of official business. The Charter Revision Commission of 2001 stepped into that opening and recommended City Charter amendments—which were passed overwhelmingly—that would authorize such generalized confidentiality protections, shielding such information as health or disability, sexual orientation, whether the person is a victim of domestic violence, as well as immigration status. But these measures have yet to be enacted.

For about a year, advocates have been urging Mayor Michael Bloomberg to issue a new executive order with this more generalized language. Although he has repeatedly spoken out for immigrant rights—even supporting an amnesty for undocumented workers—the mayor has not acted. Now, more than ever, the provision is needed, advocates insist. “There is a sense of urgency within the administration and there’s absolutely no reluctance to issue a policy,” replies Sayu Bhojwani, the city’s commissioner of immigrant affairs. “The problem is how to ensure that three or six months from now it doesn’t become invalidated, that it holds up.”

The City Council is more confident, and so 30 members have signed on to an “Access Without Fear” bill introduced by Hiram Monserrate in December that they think can withstand constitutional scrutiny as well as misrepresentations by anti-immigration activists (some of whom created a minor flurry last month by charging, erroneously, that police were prohibited from reporting non-citizen accused rapists to immigration authorities). Supporters are certain that after hearings— which they hope will take place in late April—the bill will eventually be passed. That’s all well and good, advocates say. But immigrants bracing themselves in New York’s boroughs can’t afford the wait.