Editorial

General Ahab

Generous accommodation of travelers, immigrants, and foreigners, it says somewhere in the Bible, is one measure of a society’s godliness. Presumably that page is not bookmarked in Attorney General John Ashcroft’s well-thumbed copy of the Good Book. In recent months, he has told a wide variety of audiences–eighth graders, PTA moms, police unions, zookeepers–that freedom is a gift from God. Indefinite detention, secret hearings, and deportation, on the other hand, are a courtesy of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Thousands of Arab or Muslim immigrants are currently detained by the INS, though the exact number, location and identity of the detainees remains an official secret. What began as an investigation following September 11 is evolving into a pathological crusade, with General Ashcroft at the helm.

Ashcroft managed to ramrod the controversial Patriot Act through Congress over the objection of civil libertarians. Ironically, for all of his dire predictions about what would happen if the Act failed to pass, the Justice Department has seldom used it, according to Lucas Guttentag of the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project, who was in Austin this month for a national staff convention. That’s because as bad as the Patriot Act is, it still has some minimal protections: The Justice Department must report every six months on who has been detained using the act, and detainees have a right to challenge their detentions in federal court. So Ashcroft uses other means at his disposal. “What we’ve seen instead has been a whole series of unilateral initiatives by Ashcroft, along with a basic misuse of immigration and criminal law,” Guttentag said.

The Attorney General’s edicts have included, among others: extending the deadline for charging immigrant detainees from 24 hours following an arrest to a “reasonable” period of time in an emergency situation, (effectively removing the limit altogether); expelling the press and public from immigration hearings; and effectively giving INS the ability to veto an immigration judge’s decision to allow a detainee to bond out of jail. The Justice Department has also made liberal use of the material witness provision, which allows authorities to detain persons who may have information about a crime for the purpose of obtaining their testimony. “We’ve gotten reports of people who an immigration judge has ordered deported but who are still sitting in jail because the FBI hasn’t ‘cleared’ them, even though there is no evidence of any involvement with 9/11, or any charges against them–just some immigration violations.” In some cases, Guttentag said, the FBI seems to have simply “lost interest” in the detainee.

“You might remember that Ashcroft said early on, ‘Hey, if we’re doing something wrong, where are the lawsuits?'” Guttentag said. “Well, he has been sued on numerous cases now and his position has been rejected. And they’re persisting in it nonetheless.”

The Justice Department now plans to put the names of several hundred thousand so-called “absconders,” people ordered to leave the country who never showed up for deportation, into a database accessible by local law enforcement, who they have asked to assist with the roundup. They plan to begin with the 6,000 or so Muslims or Arabs on the list. The result, Guttentag predicts, will be that all immigrants will learn to fear the police. The crackdown is having a ripple effect throughout the nation’s many immigrant communities, especially among foreign students. “For lots of students, the attitude is ‘We’re getting the hell out of here,'” said Richard Fawal, who represents the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Austin.

Another little noticed measure is having a devastating impact. The new transportation security act, which federalizes airport security, requires all current baggage screeners to reapply for their jobs as federal employees–but immigrant Green Card holders need not apply. The Mexican consulate has already warned undocumented airport workers of impending INS sweeps at U.S. airports. But Green Card holders are legal employees. Many major airports commonly employ immigrant labor in low-wage positions such as screeners. In San Francisco, as many as 80 percent of the screeners were Filipino immigrants. They will now be out of work, as will scores of others.

“I think everybody wants to feel safe and feel secure,” Guttentag said. “The challenge is to demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that security and civil liberties are not incompatible.” –NB

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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