Immigrant Families Condemn Racial Targeting

Human Rights

Abdul Hatifie hosts a weekly radio show broadcast to the Afghan community in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Along with announcements of community events and discussions of Afghan culture, the Alameda doctor tries to talk about discrimination and anti-immigrant scapegoating.

"(Listeners) hear me talk of people's stories and politics and they ask, 'Why do you say these things? Why can't you just stay quiet?'" I try to explain to them that to say the truth is not a crime," Hatifie said. "I am a person who has the right to speak, but now, in this country, we are taking out the Constitution, we are taking away our rights. The U.S. is not supposed to be like this."

Hatifie was one of 14 immigrants who shared their stories during a public hearing May 10 hosted at Buena Vista United Methodist Church, a Japanese American congregation in Alameda, California. Organized by the Applied Research Center, the testimonials were the first in a series of "Public's Truth" forums planned around the country to highlight the impact of the "war on terrorism" and national security on the lives of immigrants, refugees, and communities of color.

At least 1,200 immigrants have been secretly detained in the last two years, and the federal government still hasn't released any information on their names and whereabouts. Thousands more deported or forced to flee "special registration" requirements, FBI interrogations, and INS raids. More than 10,000 immigrant workers have lost their jobs as a result of Operation Tarmac raids at airports, citizenship requirements for screeners, and social security "no-match letters" used to fire workers.

Despite widespread fear in their communities, participants at the forum were outspoken in condemning the policies and practices that have unjustly targeted them.

"Why is it acceptable for our government to tear families apart?" asked Theresa Allyn, a student at UC Berkeley whose mother was deported to the Philippines after 30 years in the U.S. Allyn's mother, a teacher, fell "out of status" with immigration authorities after she lost her green card during a 1999 robbery. Complications over replacing her green card status eventually led to her deportation in January 2003.

Other speakers related stories of attacks across a spectrum of ethnic communities and social sectors. Marwa Rifahie, an 18-year-old Egyptian American, described harassment at her high school from a teacher who called her a "Nazi." Former airport worker Erlinda Valencia recalled English-proficiency tests and citizenship requirements that resulted in her lay-off after 14 years as a screener at San Francisco airport. Community activists Kawal Ulanday and Rebecca Gordon described government scrutiny of their political activities--being visited by the FBI and put on a "no-fly" list for profiling at airports, respectively--that pointed to a larger "clamping down on all our freedoms."

The setting of the hearing, in a Japanese American Methodist church, held particular significance for audience members as Rev. Michael Yoshii drew parallels between the post-9/11 climate and the climate that led to World War II internment. This hearing, along with its antecedent held by the Hate Free Zone of Seattle last year, is modeled after national hearings held during the Japanese American redress movement during the 1980s.

One of the Public's Truth testimonials belonged to Alba Witkin, an 83-year-old resident of Berkeley, Calif. who worked with American Friends' Service Committee during the 1940s to help Japanese American internees eligible to leave the camps for placement at colleges and universities.

"I know that it is hard to understand why people didn't seem to react to the Japanese internment. A lot of people ask me how could average citizens sit back and let that happen," she recalled. "But a lot of people didn't know the full extent of what was happening. The press didn't report it. I think that is a commentary on the media in 1942 as well as the media today. I still don't think we're getting all the stories."

Future Public's Truth forums are planned for San Jose, Los Angeles, and other cities nationwide.

According to Rev. Yoshii, "We need to establish a public record of these egregious violations and take action to protect the civil liberties and human rights of all families, regardless of their race, religion, or country of origin."

Tram Nguyen is the editor of ColorLines magazine.

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