An interview with Pramila Jayapal
In the wake of Thursday?s protests in Los Angeles over the arrest of more than 500 Iranian and other Muslim men who were complying with Attorney General John Ashcroft?s new immigrant registration order, we spoke with writer and activist Pramila Jayapal, founder and director of the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington.
Attorney General John Ashcroft?s order to require registration of these men seems to be fraught with constitutional issues. Is there any movement to challenge the Justice Department in court on this matter?
The question of oversight of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice is one of the most important issues in the current landscape. In December 2001, at a Senate hearing, the attorney general said that those who question the policies of the Department of Justice are ?aiding and abetting terrorism.? Even senators on the Judiciary Committee have been unable to get the Department of Justice to provide information. Many of the actions of the attorney general are cloaked in the veil of ?national security??and this leaves too many members of Congress as well as the general public reluctant to challenge or question his authority.
One of the difficulties post-September 11 is that the attorney general is implementing little-used existing laws. The requirement for people to register, for example, has been on the books for many decades, but it has never been used. Now, it is being applied selectively to people on the basis of religion and country of origin. We are looking carefully at the mechanisms we have to challenge the constitutionality of such laws, and will be exploring ways to challenge this particular law in the courts. As you know, court challenges are long protracted battles, but we are certainly exploring all possibilities.
The attorney general has taken the passage of the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Bill as blanket authority to push through policies and procedures that not only erode constitutional and civil rights but also fundamentally alter the character of this country. The public and our elected officials need to reclaim what we want America to be. We need to make it clear that policies such as selective special registration do not make us any safer. Let?s start focusing on the things that really do make us safer, like improving our language capabilities in intelligence agencies, rather than actions that create a lot of noise, destroy innocent people?s lives, but don?t contribute to real safety.
The situation inL.A.this week certainly will not encourage others to come forward, given the alleged treatment of those detained. I wonder if this tactic is simply going to encourage more people to go underground.
Absolutely. From the beginning, we have doubted that the Department of Justice truly wants people to register in good faith. Rather, we believe that the implementation of this policy creates a class of violators. It is near impossible for people to comply. This, then, gives the Department of Justice ?grounds? to say these people have violated the law and should be deported.
If the attorney general had wanted people to register without penalty, they would have done three things:
Extended the deadlines: It is impossible for all these people to find out about and then go to register in a three-and-a-half-week period (this was the time frame allotted for the first five countries);
Launched a major media campaign to inform people about the special registration requirements, using public media, including newspapers, television and radio, as well as ethnic media that is more likely to reach these communities;
Translated the materials into appropriate languages and provided interpreters at the INS for people who go to register.
The recent detentions of hundreds of people in L.A. destroys the government?s credibility in saying that this was a good-faith effort. Our organization had previously been advising people that they should register, because the consequences of not registering were too high?deportation. We did advise people to carefully study whether they fell into the targeted categories, and if they had any questions about their status, to contact an attorney. However, given the recent arrests, we have sent out a message to our communities advising them of the developments and stating that we believe that there is a significant risk in going forward to register. The choice is ultimately the individual?s, but we cannot responsibly advise people to register given what we have seen. We are waiting to get more information on the reasons for detention before we issue additional registration advisories.
Sadly, what all of this tells us is that the Bush administration and the Department of Justice are no longer interested in upholding the essential dignities and respect for all people, as America advertises to the rest of the world. In fighting our ?war on terrorism,? we are allowing the terrorists to win by destroying the very ideals that make America a great nation.
Will this strategy have any real affect on terrorists living inAmerica? Why would they come forward in the first place?
No, we don?t believe this strategy helps in rooting out real terrorist threats. Notice that the first 18 countries that were announced for registration did not even include Saudia Arabia or Pakistan. Those countries were added to the list just days ago, in the wake of a series of news articles pointing out the contradictions of having registration requirements that didn?t even include the country of 14 of the hijackers. However, we question the whole strategy of selective special registration, just as we question a number of the policies of the Department of Justice.
We are living in a time that I call the ?act now, explain later? government policy. Many of the actions of the Department of Justice are justified by ?national security.? However, one year later, these actions have yielded no substantial leads to terrorism. Of the more than 2,200 Arab and Muslim men rounded up for interviews late last year, the Department of Justice issued its own report stating that none of the interviews yielded any information on terrorism. Yet, the Department of Justice went ahead and announced a second round of interviews of an additional 3,000 Arab and Muslim men. Similarly, the secret detentions of over 1,200 people in the immediate wake of September 11 yielded no connections to terrorism. Many people have been detained for months without charges, without access to counsel, without even information about who they are and where they are being held. This goes against the constitutional rights guaranteed to each of us.
The New York Times reported some months back that we are no safer than we were a year ago. We need to pay attention to this. All of these actions that have created indescribable fear in immigrant communities around the country and have destroyed lives have made us no safer.
We all start from the premise that the U.S. government has the right and the obligation to protect the safety of its people. However, let?s look closely at the actions that will do so. It is not just ?liberals? or ?the left? that is questioning our path in this ?war on terrorism.? In October, 2002, House Majority Leader Dick Armey said, ?Are we going to save ourselves from international terrorism in order to deny the fundamental liberties to protect ourselves? That doesn?t make much sense.?
Many experts on national security have stated that the best way to gather intelligence and information is to build trust with our communities. All of the actions of the Department of Justice since September 11 have done just the opposite. We cannot expect people to help us in our fight to root our real terrorism when we treat them as if they are terrorists, just because of the country they come from or the religion they practice. We have scared away our best possible allies?and that is trust that is going to be extremely difficult to rebuild.
The United States unfortunately has a history of abrogating civil liberties in the name of national security. We need only look at the internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry to see our mistakes. Immigration is being used as an enormous hammer in this war, and immigrants who have come to America to flee persecution are bearing the biggest burden. And yet, it is all of us who suffer ultimately, all of us (except the Native Americans) whose families came as immigrants to this country because it offered us a dream of freedom and justice and equality. Let?s reclaim those ideals.
So what can people do to show their support for those being persecuted by this policy?
We need everyone to start voicing their dissent. We need to show this administration that these actions are not tolerable. There are many ways to do this:
Write to your Congresspeople, voicing your concerns about the targeting of immigrants and the erosion of all of our constitutional and civil rights. Demand oversight of the Department of Justice and the attorney general. Demand accountability on the upholding of constitutional and civil rights, and on the need for the balance of power. Demand actions that truly make us safer, not ones that make us look busy but do not make us safer.
Participate in rallies and demonstrations in your area. We need to build a growing public voice that our legislators and news media will have to listen to. If you need help finding out who in your area is active in this work, contact us and we?ll provide you some names of organizations. Around this policy in particular, Not In Our Names and other groups are organizing rallies around the country. Get in touch with them or us for more details.
Educate yourself about the issues. Check out our Web site at www.hatefreezone.org for updates on key issues. On our Web site, we also have a report called ?Justice for ALL: The Aftermath of September 11? which contains testimonies from men, women, and children about what they have gone through since September 11. You can order the report from us or listen to the extremely moving audio of the testimonies on the Web. Also, check out the report from Lawyers Committee for Human Rights on September 11 and the policies of the Department of Justice since then at www.lchr.org. The National Immigration Forum Web site also has useful ?backgrounders? on these issues at www.immigrationforum.org.
Get to know the immigrant communities in your area. Build connections, organize rallies, help find resources for people who need them. We are all in this together, and it?s up to us?those that are citizens of this country and therefore safe to voice dissent?to stand up for the rights of all of us.