Cracking Down on Immigrants—Again


Hasnain was nervous about getting on an airplane in the week after hijackers rammed jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, so instead of flying back to New York to begin his new semester at CUNY’s La Guardia College, the 20-year-old Pakistani national decided to take the bus. On Tuesday night, September 18, he boarded a Greyhound in Houston, where he had been visiting relatives. Early Wednesday morning, border patrol guards from the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the bus and detained him on a visa violation. On Friday, the aunt who had just bid him farewell was picking him up in New Orleans, and had trouble recognizing her nephew’s fine features beneath the bruises and swelling that distorted his face.

Apparently President Bush’s admonitions against attacking Arab and Muslim immigrants (and those mistaken for them) have not penetrated government-run institutions. While in the custody of the INS—and being held in Stone County Correctional Facility in Wiggins, Mississippi—Hasnain was brutally beaten by three white inmates he describes as “huge.” Calling him Bin Laden and threatening to kill him, the men punched his face, banged his head against the wall, and stomped on his back. They stripped him naked and belted his buttocks with a shoe. A week after the assault, Hasnain still couldn’t hear out of his left ear or eat solid food because of the pain in his jaw. His tongue was swollen and a foot-long bruise snaked along his back.

While Hasnain’s experience is the most extreme to have surfaced so far, immigrant advocates around the country are increasingly alarmed by reports of violence, harassment, and the draconian application of immigration laws against INS detainees from countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

With hundreds of immigrants rounded up for questioning in the last two weeks, serious concerns about civil liberties have been raised on the right and the left. But the INS was hardly going easy on immigrants before. There were 20,000 people in INS detention prior to September 11, and attorneys worry that the predicament of many of them will now get even worse. Moreover, they see the very statutes and structures they have long decried as allowing for cruel treatment of immigrants being aggressively exploited now and even exacerbated. They fear that punishing new laws proposed by Attorney General Ashcroft will further overwhelm the system, violate human rights, and destroy families, without achieving any significant new protections against terrorism.

After all, that is exactly what happened after Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Though McVeigh was a homegrown terrorist, the Newt Gingrich-led Congress in 1996 responded to his act by passing a series of “anti-terrorist” immigration statutes—laws so severe that some of them were modified by the Supreme Court. “After the ’96 laws, we didn’t think things could get any worse,” says Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC). “But they just did.”

As a result of the ’96 laws, the number of INS detainees skyrocketed, making immigrants the fastest-growing segment of America’s exploding jail population. Human rights groups issued report after report denouncing the Kafkaesque nature of the new laws. Not only did the laws mandate the detention of asylum seekers arriving in the U.S. without documents, they also widened the definition of what constitutes a felony and then, applying the law retroactively, required the deportation and mandatory detention of immigrants who had committed such offenses. Thus, otherwise law-abiding legal residents who had committed minor nonviolent crimes—even some who had served out sentences for them decades before—got knocks on the door from INS officials out of the blue, were served with deportation orders, and locked up.

In recent months, it looked like the excesses of 1996 were finally being reined in. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the government may not imprison immigrants indefinitely, that legal residents are entitled to have their cases reviewed by a court before facing deportation, and that new deportation rules could not be applied retroactively. Meanwhile, various bills were pending in Congress to overturn some of the harshest measures of the ’96 laws. And after Mexican president Vicente Fox’s triumphant tour of the U.S. last month, it even seemed likely that progressive new policies would be implemented to help thousands of undocumented families regularize their status.

But on September 18, Ashcroft introduced emergency measures that extended from 24 to 48 hours the time the INS can hold someone without charges—and that even allow for holding immigrants indefinitely “in the event of emergency or other extraordinary circumstance.”

The sweeping package of fresh “anti-terrorism” legislation that the Justice Department is sending to Congress also tries to exploit little loopholes in the Supreme Court rulings of June. Among other things, it would allow the attorney general to lock up immigrants suspected even of tenuous association with “terrorist” organizations and order them deported without presenting any evidence. What is more, there would be extremely limited opportunities for immigrants to appeal. “The government may need some expanded powers,” says Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), “but the law has to provide protection against mistake and abuse. That’s why we have judicial review and evidentiary standards. If suspicion and fear are enough grounds to lock people up forever, that makes us a police state.”

Though not yet in a final version, the draft legislation defines terrorism so broadly, says Butterfield, that throwing a rock through a window could fall into the category. It also expands the government’s ability to use secret evidence in deportation hearings—even as various courts around the country have been ruling that deporting someone for reasons he or she cannot know, and thus cannot defend against, is unjust.

Those caught up in what Butterfield calls the “never-never land of immigration detention” are already denied any legal protections that belong to citizens. Though they have a right to an attorney, for instance, that right is not guaranteed, as it is in criminal proceedings, so the state does not supply counsel. Even those lucky enough to have funds to hire an attorney, or to be among the small percentage served by the many pro bono organizations around the country, are now allegedly finding their access impeded.

Lawyers in Texas, New Jersey, Ohio, Minnesota, and elsewhere have complained of being turned away when they attempted to visit clients in the week following September 11. (Non-attorney visits were reportedly limited as well. Sister Pietrina Raccuglia of Cabrini Immigrant Services in New York reports that the Sunday services attended by some 75 detainees at the Varick Street INS facility in Manhattan were abruptly and indefinitely suspended by INS officials in the wake of the attacks.) INS spokesperson Karen Kraushaar says that there was “absolutely no directive” from Washington to limit anyone’s access after the twin towers attacks; she insists that the agency’s regular policy, which allows registered attorneys to visit during posted hours, was maintained.

Reports from other detention centers—including the facility near Newark airport in Elizabeth, New Jersey—suggest that Arab and Muslim detainees were separated from the general population after September 11 for their own protection. Again, Kraushaar says there was no national order for such segregation. Authorities in Elizabeth did not return calls requesting comment.

Clearly nobody thought about protecting Hasnain when he was locked in a cell full of criminal inmates in Mississippi. Still so traumatized from the battering that he requested his last name not be used, Hasnain was found to have overstayed his visa when border patrol agents raided his bus early on Wednesday morning in Mobile, Alabama. He had left his home in Karachi two years ago with a tourist visa, he says, “to escape the violence there.”

Living with friends of the family in Coney Island, he completed Hillcrest High School and then took a year of courses at Queensborough Community College. He was looking forward to transferring to La Guardia, where he planned to major in computer information systems. “I love New York, the pace of it,” he says. “And there are so many opportunities there.”

But instead of returning to classes, Hasnain was handcuffed, thrown in a van with six Mexicans, and taken directly to jail in Mississippi. When he went to a pay phone to call his aunt, the first inmate came up and punched him in the face, breaking his front tooth. “Then another man joined him, and they were both holding me down and hitting me,” he says. “Somehow I managed to reach a bell that was in the dorm. I pressed the button, and a lady’s voice came on the speaker. I begged her, ‘Please, I’m getting beaten up. Please, help me.’ They were banging my head on the bars and hammering me, and my ear began to bleed. I told them I had nothing to do with Bin Laden, but they said, ‘Too bad. You’re Pakistani. That’s close enough.’ I thought I was going to die.”

Hasnain estimates the assault lasted some 25 minutes, though he says it’s hard to gauge because he went in and out of consciousness. When some guards finally arrived, he says, “They just stood there. They did not run up to me or try to end it.” Hasnain wriggled free and ran to them. He asked to go to a hospital. They took him to the prison nurse, who gave him an ice pack and two Motrin tablets. Then he was moved to a chilly cell in solitary, where after repeated requests he was given a sheet.

Meanwhile, his aunt Erum (who also requested that her last name be withheld), was waiting anxiously in New Orleans. Hasnain had been allowed to call her from Mobile, where he was told he’d be taken to the INS regional headquarters in the Louisiana city. Erum had contacted a lawyer, scraped together the $5000 bond that had been set, and grabbed the first flight from Houston. Once in New Orleans, she was told by an INS official that Hasnain was being held in Wiggins and would be brought to Louisiana in the morning. But when he did not arrive on Thursday, she called the Mississippi jail, where an officer told her he’d “had a little schoolyard fight.”

That day, the INS told her it would take a few days to bring his file west, so they couldn’t promise when he’d arrive. She rented a car and drove nearly three hours to Wiggins. At the jail, a guard told her if she wanted to see her nephew she’d have to come back on visiting day—Sunday. “I begged him,” she says, “but he said he’d lose his job if he let me in. I wrote a note, and crying, I begged him to give it to Hasnain.” She drove back to New Orleans and waited.

Around 11 p.m., Hasnain was permitted to call his aunt, but he sounded strange to her: He called Erum by her first name instead of by the honorifics Pakistanis typically use for their elders, and remained silent when she asked if he’d been in a fight. But that, it turns out, was one of the conditions under which Hasnain was allowed to phone her at all: He was instructed that he must speak English, that the call would be made on a speakerphone with several guards present, and that if he mentioned being beaten, they’d hang up at once. (Hasnain’s attorney, Mary Howell, has called for an investigation of the attack as a hate crime. The FBI in New Orleans made preliminary inquiries, and the investigation, says Howell, has been turned over to a local assistant U.S. attorney, Jack Lacy. Lacy says he cannot comment on a pending investigation—and that by saying so, he neither confirms nor denies that such an investigation is taking place. Major Charles Gardner of the Stone County Correctional Facility declined comment. Local INS authorities said they could not comment on any particular case.)

It wasn’t until Friday at almost 2 p.m. that officers came to take Hasnain to New Orleans, where he was released on bond and his immigration hearing set for October 25. Howell worries that Hasnain may be deported before a criminal prosecution can be completed—and that the Mexican witnesses may be deported as well. Meanwhile, a possible civil suit is in the works.

Complaints of mistreatment of recent INS detainees are being voiced by advocates around the country. Texas attorney Paul Zoltan notes that a Saudi national he is representing was put in a county jail where for days he was denied a mattress, a blanket, and a drinking cup. Because he was not allowed access to a timepiece of any kind, the client, a Muslim, could not know when it was time to pray. (Zoltan emphasizes that the fault is with the county jail—which he declined to name out of concern for his client’s safety—and not with the INS itself. Still, critics have long objected to the lack of oversight the agency exercises when it farms out detainees to so many jails.)

In Minnesota, an Egyptian national taken in on a visa violation two weeks ago was taunted so relentlessly by other detainees that he refused meals rather than face them. As his U.S.-citizen wife, Eman Abdelall, puts it, “Of all the names in the world, his would have to be Ossama.” It took a week of begging—and a story in the local press—before he was moved to a separate unit.

But his attorney, Audrey Carr, wonders why he was detained at all. Abdelall’s infringement is one of those technicalities for which, under normal circumstances, the INS would not pursue him, says Carr. She surmises that he’s being held only because he’s Egyptian, even though there are no allegations that he has any ties to any terrorist groups. Carr says that INS functionaries have unofficially told her as much.

Anecdotes like these, charging that detainees from the Middle East are not to be released under any circumstances, are pouring into attorney associations, but the INS’s Kraushaar insists there is no basis to them. “Rumors don’t help this situation,” she says. “Yes, we are on heightened alert, but there is no directive to change the case-by-case basis on which bonds are set.”

Even so, the situation troubles advocates like attorney Niels Frenzen, who represented Iraqi nationals in a notorious case in which the government used secret evidence. “The existing laws that allow for deportation or removal of anyone suspected of being a terrorist are perfectly adequate,” he says. “What these laws really do is give the government a way to go after people against whom they have no evidence whatsoever of criminal culpability. That means going after them because of their nationality, religion, or race. And that is terrifying.”

The INS’s Kraushaar rejects this reasoning. “We are not the gestapo,” she says. “This is the United States, where liberty and freedom are prized. We are not about to round people up on the basis of national origin.” There are no plans to require all nationals of particular states to report to INS offices for fingerprinting and photographs—as was required of Iranian nationals during the Iran hostage crisis, Kraushaar says. And even though the Justice Department has among its many seemingly far-fetched contingency plans a Reagan-era protocol for mass detention and deportation, even the anxious advocates are not invoking the specter of internment camps. “I wouldn’t want to paint the current legislation as pointing that way,” says AILA’s Butterfield. “But given our shameful history and some of the contingency plans I’ve seen, I think we have to be very watchful.”

As for Hasnain, he’s staying with his aunt in Houston for a while and will maybe pick up his studies at La Guardia next semester. He can’t really say. “I’m very, very afraid now,” he says. “I’m not sure what to do.” He had been planning to take advantage of the new changes coming about in immigration policy to regularize his status. “I heard there were some new laws coming up,” he says. “I was hoping to be part of them.”