Ashcroft?s Assault on America

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
in
America? 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.

  • Start your own Hate Free Zone in your city or neighborhood.
    Contact us for more information:
    www.hatefreezone.org or
    206/723-2203; e-mail at
    info@hatefreezone.org.
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