Protesting While Immigrant

Human Rights

The New York City neighborhood church was filled with veteran protestors and curious first-timers, all interested in finding out more about upcoming protests at the Republican National Convention. The organizers start with a touch of humor: "And to our friends in plainclothes from the New York Police Department, welcome. We have nothing to hide." The few men sporting tucked-in-shirts and buzz-cut hairdos shifted nervously. Shouldn't they pick better disguises? Whatever happened to Serpico? Anyway, this was a meeting to plan peaceful protest – no one seemed worried about the police presence.

The meeting continued for hours, going through the various scenarios – where to march, where the detours may be, the status of the Central Park permit, what radio station to listen to, and where to stock up on drinking water. Finally, the legal observers came on stage – ready to give guidelines in case of any police action.

"First of all," intoned the speaker, "If you're a recent immigrant who is not a naturalized citizen yet, be very careful. Don't get arrested."

"Especially," she added, after a pause for emphasis, "If you look like you're Muslim."

Many Immigrants, Many Visas

Immigrants make up forty percent of New York City's population. Organizers expect that a lot of the city's immigrant population will be supporters, if not active participants, in the anti-RNC protests planned for this coming weekend. But it is these same immigrants who face legal restrictions on their right to engage in peaceful protest.

The status of immigrants can vary widely. Some are here on work or student visas; others have green cards and can apply for citizenship after five years with a green card. However, for certain immigrants the security check (post 9/11) can add several years to this process. All these types of immigrants have the legal right to protest and express political opinions in America – but due to extensive and slow background checks and increased surveillance, these rights are effectively restricted for Muslim immigrants.

Minor Arrests Block Citizenship

If all goes well, the anti-RNC protests will be large, peaceful and orderly. So why should immigrant protesters be worried about trouble? The reality is, as any of us attending protests in the last two years know, you can be arrested even if you don't "make trouble." During last year's controversial February 15 protests in New York against the war in Iraq, the police cordoned off entire city blocks, trapping protesters inside metal barriers. In this situation, even peaceful protestors can be arrested for "refusing to disperse."

Even a minimum charge of Disorderly Conduct is bad news for immigrants. If an immigrant is arrested for any reason, no matter how minor, it will affect his naturalization application. Even if the charges are dropped, the arrest alone is enough to sabotage citizenship. On the Citizenship (Naturalization) application, the applicant must answer the question: "Have you ever been arrested?" The question does not ask for more details – what were you arrested for, were you convicted, etc? Being arrested for any reason, even if it is wrongful arrest, could result in a refusal of citizenship. The applicant could have to wait five years after the arrest to reapply. This could have a chilling effect on immigrants who wish to protest.

The Post-9/11 World

Cutbacks of civil liberties of immigrants have been in effect long before 9/11. New legislation passed by Congress after the Oklahoma bombing (even though the culprits there were not recent immigrants) instituted mandatory detention of immigrants with any criminal convictions, even minor convictions, and the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. The law also removed judicial review of Immigration judges.

After 9/11, more laws were enacted that affected immigrant rights, legalized by interim policy and regulations passed by the Department Of Justice (and Homeland Security since March 2003). Attorney Sin Yen Ling of the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund says, "The reason all this was not done through the Patriot Act is simple. When you pass a law, Congress has to vote on it. If you pass interim regulations, it's much easier. You can do it without any public scrutiny."

Among the interim regulations passed are the following, all of which have had a chilling effect on free speech in immigrant communities:

  1. Material Witness/Special Interest Cases, under which approximately 5,000 Muslim men were detained and placed in secret detention

  2. The Absconder Initiative listed individuals with outstanding deportation orders and placed them on the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) list.

  3. Special registration: Citizens of 25 countries (all majority Muslim, except North Korea) were required to register with the INS. This program has now been suspended in the face of public protest.

  4. SEVIS (Student Exchange Visitor Information System): This tracks all foreign students in US and scrutinizes them for potential terrorist threat.

  5. Sealed Protective Order: This places gag orders on immigrants in removal proceedings, preventing them from talking to anybody, including the press.

  6. Voluntary Interviews: These target recent Muslim immigrants, initially conducted by the FBI, and later transferred to local agencies (such as NYPD's newly formed Counter Intelligence or Terrorism Task Force). These interviews were conducted after 9/11, during the initial invasion of Iraq, and again in July in conjunction with the Orange Alert.

  7. A new requirement that hospitals have to collect information on immigrant status before providing Medicaid, and the expectation that police will now question people on immigrant status.

Of the approximately 5,000 Muslim men who were detained after 9/11, only three were charged with any crime, and only one was indicted. But if the intention was to silence dissent, the dragnet succeeded. Knowing that they can be arrested, interrogated, detained, deported or denied citizenship on the smallest of charges, immigrants are now fearful about participating in public protests, even if it is a protest to defend their own rights.

RNC in the Immigrant City

As the RNC arrives in New York this week, protest organizers will have to protect immigrants, especially Muslims, from harassment and racial profiling. Reports circulated this week that INS officers would accompany the NYPD to arrest locations. Since the NYPD does not have a policy of asking for immigration status, the presence of INS officers allows circumvention of this. One reason groups like NION (Not In Our Name) were pushing for a permit to march in Central Park was to ensure that protesters could march in open, legal spaces.

Activist Aimara Lin's grandparents were among the 100,000 Japanese-Americans incarcerated under Executive Order 9066 in 1940. Lin has been actively fighting for Muslim immigrant rights since 9/11. She recently linked the Central Park permit debate to the issue of immigrant protesters: "There are many reasons we pushed for a permit for Central Park, the largest open space in New York City. Immigrants have the right to come out and say what they have had to go through. The denial of the permit is a part of the overall rollback of everybody's rights. I think there are still brave immigrants who will come out even if there is no permit, but there is a clear risk to them. We're doing everything we can to curtail this risk, at this time and in the future."

In spite of the barriers, immigrant rights advocates refuse to be intimidated. American-Muslim civil rights attorney Chaumtoli Huq put it in context: "We should encourage each other to protest. Many immigrants come from countries where they have protested under worse conditions. Practical measures can be taken to ensure that recent immigrants stay clear of police and are paired with a US citizen. My experience with working class immigrant Taxi drivers has always been positive with respect to protest."

Maya Sen is a recent South Asian immigrant and political activist. Although Maya is a legal immigrant on a work visa, she offered a cautious note. "If I was to get arrested, my status will be in jeopardy for sure, and I can't afford that. So it's a catch 22 situation – I want to protest, but the repressive climate will restrict my expression."

The RNC is almost here. Will all New Yorkers be able to come out and peacefully protest? If they do, some will be risking more than just a few nights in jail; some will be risking deportation just to get their voices heard.

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