The Great Immigrant Crackdown

Ed. note: This is an abridged excerpt from Tram Nguyen's book "We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories From Immigrant Communities After 9/11." (Beacon Press, 2005).

In March 2003, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ban Al-Wardi's parents received a phone call from the Los Angeles police. The LAPD wanted to set up an interview for the Iraqi-American family with the FBI. A few days later, without notice, agents appeared at their door asking for Al-Wardi's father. Her mother asked the agents to meet him at his office instead, where he was a doctor in private practice. When she offered to give them the address, the agents said not to bother, they already had it.

Al-Wardi went to her father's office to tell him the men were coming, but they were already there. Two men with tape recorders introduced themselves as FBI agents and said that they were there to help. During times of war, unfortunately, they said, some communities are targeted. They wanted the Al-Wardis to know that they could call on the FBI for protection.

"Then they pulled out this file on my father. It had his picture, his immigration documents," Ban Al-Wardi recalled.

The agents pulled out pages and pages of what turned out to be a list of questions. Where were you born? What was your father's name? And your grandfather's name? Do you own weapons? Do you own weapons of mass destruction? Like chemical poison or lethal gas? Do you know anyone with access to weapons like this? Have you ever taken flight school courses or have you ever flown a plane? Do you know any Iraqi Americans living in the U.S. now who do fly planes? When was the last time you went to Iraq? Do you consider Iraq your home? Where is home for you? Would you bear arms to fight for this country?

They produced a map of Iraq and taped it to the wall, asking Al-Wardi's father to point out cities where he thought it would be possible for weapons of mass destruction to be hidden. The interview lasted two hours.

"My parents used to be very active, they used to go to all the demonstrations against the war. They had protested the Afghanistan invasion and they've been very vocal. But since that time, my mom doesn't go to any demonstrations. My father goes but he doesn't want to bring attention to himself. He even disguises himself," she said, with a short laugh. "He wears a baseball cap and sunglasses, and turns up his collar. He doesn't want people taking pictures of him."

The FBI visited up to 11,000 Iraqi Americans as the war in Iraq began, according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Billed as "voluntary interviews," they were part of a series of such visits that had begun in November 2001. The first phase involved 5,000 men from countries suspected of having Al-Qaeda presence; a second phase began in March 2002 with interviews of 3,000 more men. A year later, the General Accounting Office found that none of the information from these interviews had been analyzed, while about 20 of the interviewees had been arrested for immigration charges.

As an immigration attorney, Ban Al-Wardi was no stranger to the consequences of FBI surveillance. She represented two Muslim leaders from Anaheim's large Arab community whose cases symbolized the growing dangers of "guilt by association." One was a well-known Egyptian cleric, Imam Wagdy Mohamed Ghoneim of the Islamic Institute of Orange County, who was arrested in November 2004 and charged with overstaying his religious-worker visa. After having a heart attack in the San Pedro detention facility, Ghoneim chose deportation.

The other case involved Abdel-Jabbar Hamdan, the Palestinian founder of an Anaheim mosque. Hamdan was arrested in July 2004 for his association with the Holy Land Foundation. He had worked as a fundraiser for the Dallas-based charity, which became the first to be shut down by the government in 2001 for alleged ties to Hamas. In 2002, Hamdan agreed to travel to Dallas at the request of the FBI to answer questions about Holy Land. Soon after he agreed, agents knocked at his door at four in the morning. He was brought to San Pedro's Terminal Island, and kept there on the basis of a Patriot Act provision that allows indefinite detention if the government can show "reasonable grounds" of a threat to national security.

"They took two big symbols, well-loved symbols in the community and really humiliated them," Al-Wardi said. "So it was a very strong message, and people got it."

Along with the arrest of influential figures, the FBI was also cultivating a more "user-friendly approach," as Al-Wardi put it, to its intelligence-gathering within Muslim communities as a whole. Regular meetings took place between FBI liaisons and Arab and Muslim organizations, where cultural sensitivity trainings and information about the Patriot Act, from the point of view of law enforcement, were exchanged. As a result of this sensitizing, FBI agents began showing up on their early-morning visits bearing extra head scarves for the women of the house, to save them time as they got ready to be questioned and searched.

Muslim communities from San Diego to Chicago to Minneapolis felt pressed into a precarious relationship with law enforcement. They were being urged to cooperate with the authorities in order to prevent another terrorist attacks, and yet the cooperation still carried repercussions.

"We don't assume when we contact someone they're a terrorist or are going to be supporting terrorists or espousing radical views," an FBI official in San Diego said. "We're there to ferret it out and seek their assistance. If it escalates into something that gives us cause to believe they may be involved, then that's a different story."

In 2003, the Bureau ominously ordered all its supervisors to count the number of mosques and Muslims in their field divisions as part of their anti-terrorism work. A congressional briefing leaked to the New York Times revealed that the tally was being used to "establish a yardstick" for how many investigations and intelligence warrants an office could be expected to produce.

"It's become a cooperation test," Al-Wardi said. "For community groups, the impression is that we have nothing to hide, we might as well engage these agencies and act as a buffer zone, so we can ask questions and they can respond to us and maybe that will alleviate some of the assaults on our community members...Unfortunately, it hasn't translated into that at all."

Hamid Khan, director of the South Asian Network in Southern California, said his organization was immediately wary of collaborating with FBI officials. "Just the basic definition of how they are defining a terrorist, how they are defining counterterrorism-based on their approach, there are terrorists in an ethnic community and you use a broad brush to render the whole community suspect," he said.

Instead of sitting down with community relations representatives, Khan and others wanted to meet with the regional officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and "raise questions to really challenge the ongoing policies that impact us." But for more than a year, their requests had been denied.

In early 2005, two developments hit Los Angeles that mirrored changes in immigration law throughout the country. First the Sheriff's Department began a pilot program where its officers would enforce immigration law. They would determine the legal status of immigrants held in county jails. Sheriffs would then issue notices to appear for deportation. This new agreement, advocates saw, was a first step for local agencies to take on federal immigration authority. It countered the city's longstanding policy of prohibiting LAPD officers from questioning people about their immigration status, known as Special Order 40.

“It was a real defeat for us,” said Al-Wardi. “The effect on immigrant communities was devastating.”

Then, in March 2005, months of rumblings among law enforcement and immigration authorities about getting tough on human trafficking and drug smuggling in the Southwest finally erupted into a full-scale nationwide crackdown. Operation Community Shield, a joint task force of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, began on March 14 with the arrests of 103 members of Salvadoran gang members.

The Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13, emerged from Los Angeles during the 1980s and now reportedly had thousands of members across the U.S. and in Central America. After years of urban warfare between rival gangs and with police gang units, and an increasingly violent homecoming in Central America, the MS-13 was now portrayed as the latest "homeland security risk."

In Los Angeles, federal agents used gang databases collected by local police to arrest 17 suspected gang leaders. The operation followed a precedent set during the roundups of Muslim suspects after September 11-use administrative immigration violations in pursuit of a criminal investigation. Speculation circulated in the media of a connection between Mara Salvatrucha and Al Qaeda, though Department of Homeland Security officials admitted they had no evidence and that such an alliance was improbable.

"Once the idea of a connection is out there, the damage is done," said Alex Sanchez, the program director of Homies Unidos, a gang prevention program based in Los Angeles and San Salvador. At their office in Pico-Union, the same streets where Mara Salvatrucha originated, Sanchez spoke urgently just days after the new crackdown was launched.

"Mara Salvatrucha is a gang basically composed of many immigrants that have issues regarding themselves and the way they view their lives, and they get it out through this type of violence against other gang members. They're not focusing on the community, on civilians, their focus is to fight other gangs. But the way they're portrayed now is this vicious gang that's out to get anybody, and that is unfounded."

Sanchez should know, he had been a member of Mara Salvatrucha throughout his youth in Los Angeles. He was also deported to El Salvador in 1994, for a car theft conviction, and managed to return the following year to rejoin his family. His time in El Salvador opened his eyes to the violence wrought from decades of death squads and human rights atrocities.

"Down there, what they're doing is instead of beating somebody up with a baton, they're actually killing them," he said. "What we experienced as immigrants getting deported was a violence we had never seen before. You also experience the difference between being poor here and being poor down there, which is a big difference. My aunty had a store, and I saw people go in and buy one egg and four people eating out of that one egg with four tortillas. So what I saw of poverty down there, it's real poverty."

According to Sanchez, targeting the MS-13 as a homeland security threat masks a different problem that had nothing to do with international terrorism and everything to do with urban disinvestment in the U.S. and decades of violence in Central America. The MS-13 members came from a world of three strikes laws, gang injunctions and adult sentencing for juveniles. They came from a place of death squads paid by the Salvadoran government to kill union organizers, guerillas, and later on, criminal deportees. Gangs were indeed a problem, Sanchez said, but the solution didn't lie in painting them as "urban terrorists."

When the police crack down on gangs, a lot of innocent people get swept up in the process, Sanchez explained. The police cast a wide net that includes not just gang members but those who knew them, were related to them, had other immigration violations or drug charges, or just simply looked like a suspect.

"I see more violence coming from this. I see people forced to move, more kids without fathers or mothers, more families on welfare," Sanchez said.

It’s hard to get any sympathy for gang members though when even the law-abiding immigrants faced harsh measures. That divide was the biggest problem, Sanchez believed, for those who opposed the spread of more repressive enforcement policies. The gang members, after all, were the children of the refugee and immigrant families who had survived tangled, brutal histories of violence and poverty.

"It's all a circle, you know," he reflected. "Who are they targeting next? If we don't see the bigger picture, we're going to have the government in our community snatching people out of their homes, at night, at dawn, any time of the day, from their work, in front of their children. Who's gonna be next? It's not just the hard core criminal, 'cause they already went after him."

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