How Members of Congress Are Advancing Anti-Muslim Hysteria to Push a Radical Legal Agenda
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Roughly one month after the massacre at Fort Hood and a little over a week after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the "underwear bomber") tried to blow himself up over the city of Detroit, one of the most conservative Republicans in the Congress, South Carolina Representative Gresham Barrett, re-introduced a sweeping piece of legislation that he first rolled out in 2003 as a freshman on Capitol Hill.
The Stop Terrorists Entry Program (STEP) Act was originally introduced on September 11 (naturally), 2003 "to bar the admission of aliens from countries determined to be state sponsors of terrorism, and for other purposes." At the time, these countries included Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iraq and Cuba. The bill not only sought to bar presumed enemies of the state from entering the U.S., it also would have forced "nonimmigrant aliens" -- visitors with a temporary visa -- to leave the country, within 60 days of its passage.
In other words, they would be deported.
The STEP Act never got very far. But a few days into the new year, Rep. Barrett decided to try again. "Twice in the past two months, radical Islamic terrorists have attacked our nation and the administration has failed to adapt its national security and immigration policies to counter the renewed resolve of those who seek to harm our citizens," he announced. "In light of these unfortunate facts, the Step Act of 2010 bars the admission of aliens from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism and Yemen."
Iranian advocacy groups were especially vocal in their alarm over the re-introduced bill. In an open letter to Barrett on January 9, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), described his bill as an attempt to "make discrimination against Iranians into United States law."
"You have said you are reintroducing the STEP Act in response to the Fort Hood shooting and the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airplane over Detroit," Parsi wrote. "We hope you recognize that no Iranian has been involved in any of these attacks, or the 9/11 terrorist attacks for that matter. The individuals who carried out the Fort Hood attack and the Christmas day attempt -- an American Army major and a Nigerian national -- would not have been affected in the slightest by the sweeping provisions offered in your bill."
This point was reiterated by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, who crowned Barrett one of his "Worst Persons" on his January 12 segment. Pointing out that Major Nidal Hasan was born in Arlington, VA and went to high school in Roanoke, Olbermann said, "I guess, congressman, you need to expand your STEP program to stop aliens from infiltrating our homeland from such nests of terror as Interstate 81 in Virginia."
The day before Barrett officially re-introduced the STEP Act, NIAC delivered thousands of letters to his office, urging him to reconsider. "Your bill punishes innocent Iranians and implies that 'stopping terrorists' means barring them from entering the U.S. to visit family or go to school," the letters read.
Surprisingly, hours after the letters were delivered, Rep. Barrett's office said he would get rid of the language that would lead to the deportation of immigrants from Iran and other countries. "Unfortunately, many have been misinformed on the true nature of this legislation," Barrett claimed in a statement released alongside the bill. "Contrary to some reports, the STEP Act does not contain any language that calls for deportation of citizens from countries identified as state sponsors of terrorism who have already obtained a United States visa and currently reside in the United States … Citizens from these countries who have already obtained a United States visa and currently reside in the United States will not be affected by this legislation."
NIAC declared this "a major victory," but warned that the fight is not over. The revised version of the bill still basically criminalizes Iranians and others, banning them from obtaining U.S. visas.
The STEP Act may be a uniquely bad -- not to mention far-fetched -- example of legislative efforts to install blatantly discriminatory policy into American law books in the name of national security. But the danger it represents, even in its softened version, is hard to overstate. "That people even consider dropping those pieces of legislation is pretty troubling," Corey Saylor, legislative director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told AlterNet. At a time when blatant and far-reaching anti-Muslim measures are being enacted in other parts of the world -- such as the Swiss ban on minarets or the campaign to ban the hijab in France -- new attempts to target Muslims in this country are cause for concern. "I think we're headed in a very disturbing direction, in which anti-Muslim hysteria is growing, and I think it's something that we all need to address," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told AlterNet.
The issue should be addressed sooner rather than later. Within days of Abdulmutallab's foiled bomb attempt, the White House announced that citizens of 14 predominantly Muslim countries -- Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Cuba -- would now be subject to additional screenings at airport security, a policy that will remain in place "indefinitely." As with the STEP Act, this effectively criminalizes whole global populations, feeding into the "clash of civilizations" narrative that has fueled so many destructive post-9/11 misadventures. Nawar Shora, the legal director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, called the 14-country directive "extreme and very dangerous."