When the Patriot Act was first passed, the broad acceptance of this sweeping legislation scared many in the Arab-American community. Now two years later, there is talk on both sides of the aisle of amending or repealing the Act, as coalitions form between the strangest of bedfellows --Grover Norquist's conservative Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU, for example. A lawsuit filed in July by the ACLU and six other plaintiffs from the Arab and Muslim communities takes aim at the secret search provisions of the law and is sparking discussions of how best to rein in the Justice Department.
Based in Dearborn, Michigan -- the center of the Arab-American community -- ACCESS is one of the plaintiffs in this case. As the largest Arab-American human services and advocacy organization in the United States, we have seen the impact the Patriot Act has had on the Arab-American community. It does not matter that Ashcroft limply insists that the secret search provisions have not been used yet -- this law represents one of the most radical expansions of FBI powers we have seen since the Hoover era. But in seeing the day-to-day impact of this "war on terrorism" for Arab Americans and new Arab immigrants, we also do not want the Patriot Act to become the straw man for civil rights advocates. The danger is that we become complacent, that small victories in drawing attention to the most egregious aspects of the Patriot Act make us think we have succeeded in rolling back the excesses of this divisive domestic war.
Some of the most damaging tools of the Justice Department's targeting of Arab Americans are executive orders and administrative changes in immigration law that have largely remained under the radar screen of many lawmakers and advocates. Just one example: There are over 13,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants in deportation proceedings because of the Special Registration rules that required nationals from 22 countries to sign up with the immigration authorities. Not one of these individuals has been charged with terrorism. Most are being deported for routine immigration violations -- like not registering a change of address -- that in normal times could be rectified in hearings before immigration judges. Many of the deportees are only out of status because the INS delayed processing their forms, or even just outright lost them. Families are being separated and lives destroyed because of selective enforcement of immigration laws that have been on the books for many years -- and are being used to intimidate and deport law abiding Arab and Muslim Americans.
Fear and confusion are pervasive in the Arab-American community today. We see people too afraid to step forward when they are harassed on the job or fired, when they are denied housing because of their last names or when a family member is picked up by immigration authorities and detained in another state -- too far away for the family to visit -- on evidence that remains secret to both detainee and lawyers alike. We hear anecdotal evidence in Dearborn and in other Arab-American communities that some Arab immigrants have just opted to return to the Middle East because they no longer feel welcome here, despite the fact that they have made their lives here as law abiding Americans.
The Bush administration's divisive tactics have not succeeded in quelling the ongoing struggle for civil rights and due process in post-9/11 America. We find cause for optimism in the emerging alliances that have formed across communities of color, immigrant groups and civil rights advocates. Japanese Americans have been courageous in drawing parallels between our current climate and one of the most shameful periods of our history -- the internment of over 110,000 Japanese Americans during the second World War. After 9/11, media assessments of the backlash against Arab Americans had the self-assured tone that we could never respond with such internments, such scapegoating, again. Arab Americans now see that there are different ways of achieving the same results as internment: through secret arrests and unlimited detentions, through deportation on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing (no proof necessary) and through the creation of such a climate of fear that law-abiding immigrants are beginning to leave this country worried that they may be targeted next. We need to make sure that our work against the Patriot Act does not lose sight of the stark realities Arab Americans face everyday.
Karen Rignall is the National Outreach Director for ACCESS, an Arab-American human services and advocacy organization located in Dearborn, Michigan.