What Happens To the Disappeared?

When Roger Calero got to customs at Houston's international airport Dec. 3, he thought long lines were all he had to worry about. The Nicaraguan-born, New York-based journalist had been in Guadalajara, Mexico covering a story and, as a legal permanent resident of the U.S. since 1990, he had been through customs many times.

Yet by the end of the day, Calero was stuck in an immigration detention center, surrounded by immigrants who, like himself, had lived in the U.S. for years, had raised families here and considered themselves Americans.

The reason for Calero's detention and ongoing deportation proceedings was a 1988 conviction for marijuana possession, when he was a high school student in L.A. Calero had freely disclosed his conviction on both his original application for permanent residency and his 2000 renewal; both were granted without incident.

But under strict immigration reforms passed in 1996, even legal residents convicted of a wide variety of crimes are deportable. Deportable crimes include misdemeanor drug- and gang-related incidents and other minor, nonviolent offenses as well as DUIs and sex crimes, including statutory rape.

“People with kids, houses, the whole successful American dream and now they’re getting deported,” Calero told me, noting that one of his fellow detainees had actually helped build the very center they were being held in. “These are the big ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals' [the INS] is talking about."

What happened to Calero could happen to any of the thousands of legal immigrants in this country with past criminal convictions. Likewise for millions of undocumented immigrant workers, despite the fact that the vast majority of them are hard-working contributors to the national economy.

Take the case of Arturo, an undocumented Mexican immigrant and Chicago resident. In fall 2002, Arturo and a group of friends set out on a road trip to attend an immigrants' rights rally in Washington D.C. Little did Arturo know that a flat tire in the hills of rural Pennsylvania would crush their plans and land him and another man in jail facing deportation proceedings.

As they were fixing the flat, the van-load of brown faces caught the attention of a local police officer who found a pretense to ask for their residency papers. Arturo languished in detention in Pennsylvania for weeks before finally being released pending a deportation hearing.

Terror-Related Deportations

As part of the war on terrorism, legal immigrants of Arab descent are vulnerable to deportation after secret hearings based on nebulous "suspicion" of links to terrorism. There is a particularly high risk of deportation for those with minor visa violations, such as students who have overstayed their visas or professionals whose visa renewals are caught up in the system. While the INS has not released any data on Sept. 11-related deportations, advocate groups note that thousands have been detained and well over 1,000 have been deported -- though investigators have not found not a single link to terrorism among those deported.

Rabih Haddad, a native of Lebanon and U.S. resident for over 20 years, is one of these detainees who still remain behind bars. Haddad was arrested based on his leadership of the charity Global Relief, which the FBI claimed was funneling money to terrorists. Although the FBI couldn’t prove any terrorist links, he has been held for 14 months without bond.

Rbaih’s brother, Nazen Haddad, said Rabih's detention and impending deportation have been a horrible strain on the whole family. If Rabih is ordered deported, his wife and four children, who live in Ann Arbor, Mich. will be deported also.

"It's taking a big toll on our mother," said Haddad, who lives in Toronto. "And his wife is having to deal with raising and supporting four kids and keeping her sanity. Beyond the effect on the family it also has a sociopolitical effect on the whole community. This kind of profiling has filled everyone with fear."

Haddad worries that if his brother is deported to Lebanon, he might face a fate like that of Syrian national and Canadian citizen and resident Naher Arar, who was deported to Jordan and then Syria in September 2002 while trying to make a connecting flight through New York. Arar has been held in a Syrian prison with no contact with his family ever since. "This way the U.S. can still have access to him if they want, but they don't have to answer to the concerns of his lawyers and the public," Haddad said.

Out of Sight …

"Out of sight, out of mind" seems to be the prevailing philosophy of the U.S. government and other proponents of deportations. People don't like seeing Arabs in their schools and workplaces -- it makes them nervous about terrorist attacks. Employers don't like pesky Latino or Asian factory workers who are talking about unionizing. Wealthy homeowners don't like seeing Mexicans standing on corners waiting to be picked up for day labor work, or camping in the bluffs behind their mansions. Unless they need to hire one of these Mexicans for something, the sight annoys and frightens them.

On a visit to an INS detention center in DuPage, Illinois well before the Sept. 11 attacks, many of the Latin American and Chinese men I talked to had been sitting there for months with no clue as to their fate. A few of them hadn't even seen a lawyer yet. And for immigrants from countries with which the U.S. has no diplomatic ties, like Cuba and North Korea, the situation is even more bizarre. These would-be deportees need permission to go back to their own countries, but if they are dissidents or exiles they may not be granted this permission, leaving them as stateless people living in limbo. The same applies to Palestinians whose homeland has been subsumed by the Israeli occupation, or others whose home countries have literally ceased to exist.

In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that indefinite detentions of “countryless” immigrants was unconstitutional and said they could only be held for six months. However, the government has used post- Sept. 11 “homeland security” measures -- which allow detention without time limits -- as a pretext to extend these six-month periods indefinitely.

But while the thousand of deported and detained immigrants may be out of the public eye, their expulsion has serious consequences. Take the case of a Mexican man deported while his immigrant wife and children are left behind in the U.S. with no grasp of the English language and little way to make a living. While before they would have been a self-sufficient family, now the wife and children, who might even be U.S. citizens, become the proverbial "drain on society." While the man may try to return to join his family, even risking his life in an illegal border crossing, the Mexican border has become so dangerous thanks to armed vigilantes, harsh weather and increased security, there’s a good chance he would not return alive.

Meanwhile, others who are deported might as well be strangers dropped in a strange land. The DuPage facility in Illinois, like facilities all over the country, was full of young Asian and Latino men who were to be deported because of gang- and drug-related convictions. Most of these men had lived in the U.S. from a young age, and English was their only language.

Refugees and asylum seekers whose petitions have been denied are also deported. This includes women who face genital mutilation in their home countries, women or gays fleeing cultural oppression, political dissidents facing torture and imprisonment by their home governments. Some even have valid fears of execution or murder if their asylum petitions are denied. At least one Somali immigrant has been killed since being deported to Mogadishu and a lawsuit filed in November 2002 is seeking to block the deportation of 1,000 to 5,000 others back to Somalia, which has no functioning government.

Deportation may mean more comfort and peace of mind for some American citizens, business owners and lawmakers. They might see it as expelling unwanted hordes from a country where they don't belong and returning them to their rightful homelands. But for thousands of immigrant men, women and children in the U.S. and their family members around the world, it means far more than that. It means terror, loneliness, hopelessness, despair. In extreme cases it could even mean imprisonment, torture or death.

"Deportation really shatters families and communities," said Arnoldo Garcia, program associate of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "People disappear literally overnight, sometimes without warning. Kids are abandoned when their parents are picked up at work. Unaccompanied minors can be deported without having a guardian present. It's a really devastating experience. People don't expect to be separated from their families and disappeared, just for speeding."

Kari Lydersen is a reporter at the Washington Post Midwest bureau in Chicago and the assistant program director/ instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program. This is the first installment of "And Liberty for All," her weekly Rights and Liberties column for AlterNet.

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