In the months after the September 11 attacks, the lives of most Americans returned to something like normalcy. But for Arab, South Asian, North African and Muslim communities, life changed fundamentally—and irrevocably. Early morning visits from the FBI became routine; thousands of people were detained, most often without charge or access to a lawyer; deportation ripped families apart, and virtually every member of those communities became a suspect. Nevertheless, not one of the immigrants caught up in post-9/11 sweeps and detained was ever shown to have been involved in terrorist activities, though many were eventually charged on minor immigration violations.
It's important to remember, though, that the anti-immigrant clampdown after Sept. 11 only exacerbated an environment already made hostile by a raft of immigration laws, passed in 1996, that mandated the detention and deportation of whole categories of people, and made all immigrants, from green card holders to refugees to undocumented migrants, subject to deportation even for relatively minor offenses, like shoplifting or possession of marijuana. Since 1996, more than 1 million immigrants from 120 countries have been deported, and immigrant detainees are the fastest growing portion of the US prison population.
In We Are All Suspects Now, Tram Nguyen examines the human cost of the country’s domestic war on terrorism in the four years since 9/11—a cost borne by communities not in some far-off, dust-ridden land, but here within our very own borders. Nguyen, whose own family fled Vietnam in 1978 as part of the largest resettlement in U.S. history, tells detailed, compelling stories of those whose lives are missing from the media—the silent, the “disappeared.” Taking readers on a harrowing journey through targeted immigrant communities from Brooklyn to Minneapolis to Los Angeles to Canada, Nguyen provides a ground-level view of federal policies implemented in the name of the war on terror, and tells the deeply intimate stories of thousands of immigrants caught up in the immigration and criminal justice system. She sheds light, too, on an immigration system that sets up arbitrary and reductive distinctions between “good immigrants” (the hard-working, penny-saving souls who work in our back rooms, kitchens and taxicabs) and “bad immigrants,” those who, for breaking the law even in trivial ways, can expect to suffer harsh penalties.
Nguyen is the executive editor of Colorlines, one of the only magazines in the country to focus exclusively on all communities of color in America. She recently spoke with Mother Jones from Colorlines’ office in Oakland, CA.
Mother Jones: What motivated you to write this book?
Tram Nguyen: Right after September 11, I heard stories of people disappearing, especially in the East Coast. I heard from a South Asian organization in Brooklyn called DRUM—Desis Rising Up and Moving—about increasing numbers of people being picked up off the streets or from their homes, and no one knew what happened to them.
A few months after September 11, I was able to go along with some DRUM volunteers on a detention visitation. I had a really intense experience visiting Passaic County Jail in Patterson, New Jersey. We took the bus from Port Authority, and I was with a family—a mother, her three little kids, and a grandmother, who were with a DRUM volunteer. We had this very dehumanizing experience waiting in the jail to go see their dad, who had been arrested at his convenience store and detained for five months without charges. He was undocumented; his visa had expired, so he was still being held. I went with them to visit, and it just reminded me so much of the experience of visiting political prisoners, specifically when I was a kid going with my family to visit my dad when he was put into a political re-education camp in Vietnam. It seemed really different from the standard in the criminal justice system, where at least you have some sort of system. This was totally chaotic at the time and very secretive, and there was no accountability on the government’s part. It really chilled me.
Colorlines is tied to the Applied Research Center, which is more of an advocacy, organizing, and policy institute. ARC put together five hearings in different cities to start creating a public discussion of this issue. We would talk about secret detentions, and people would be really shocked. Some communities would be intensely affected, but if you weren’t in that community, you could not know it was happening. That was the driving force—[the] need to put these stories front and center and let people see the wide effect of it.
MJ: What were some of the emotions you picked up on in the people you spoke to? Were there some intangibles you weren’t able to capture in words?
TN: At one point while I was writing, I remember really wishing it was a novel. If these people were fiction characters, I could express a lot that I sensed was part of the story but didn’t have the facts to back up. One thing that was difficult to make concrete is the sense of surreal-ness, the sense of the government really having the power to reach in and take people away and change your life in really drastic ways. That comes across in the details: worrying that in your Friday mosque sermon there might be undercover FBI agents—which was not just a fear; it was really happening in some places. Or in the parking lot, agents taking down license plates and following people after they left. All of that added up to a more threatening kind of environment, and it’s hard to show that in a way that was more concrete.
MJ: In the book you talk about the almost scripted role immigrants play in the U.S.—how they are assumed to be either part of a fifth column or almost cardboard cutouts illustrating the American dream. Talk about how these two images informed the writing of the book.
TN: I really was consciously trying to work against that. As the story began to crack open more, the mainstream media were pretty sympathetic on how they covered it. There were a lot of “sob stories” that told the same kind of narrative again and again: hard-working immigrant family and so on. It always had to fit the “good immigrant” model, where you had to be grateful or talk about [how] “I came here for freedom.” It was a real typical master narrative about what kinds of immigrants were wronged and deserved our sympathy in this system. But of course, the more complicated, messy part of the picture is that the system is the problem. It’s because they’ve built this very entrenched detention system and they’ve enlarged criminalization.
The guy in the first chapter, Ali [Raza], he was a small time thug in Queens. He was undocumented and was working in the underground economy, doing what he could to get by. At one point, he was doing fake credit cards and small petty crimes. There is a lot of that within our immigrant economy. You can say these aren’t the model good immigrants. Southeast Asian gang members do not fit the Asian American immigrant model minority thing. How do we talk about those people, these “bad immigrant” archetypes? And how do we get around this “We need to be sympathetic to the good people”?
Sadruddin Noorani in the Chicago chapter was one of my favorite stories in the book because he’s so complicated. He tried to be the “good immigrant,” and it reminded me a lot of my parents and their friends—really trying to be good Americans, obey the law. But he occupied a gray area, too. His response to special registration was to organize hundreds of people to register, ruining the lives of a lot of people. He could even be seen, arguably, as an unofficial agent of the INS. That brought up for me the importance of showing immigrants as real people, [showing] the humanity of people’s choices and the rules for who gets to be an American and what you have to do to earn your place here.
MJ: Why is the “good immigrants-bad immigrants” dichotomy problematic?
TN: You have, on one hand, the fight for immigrant rights at the broad level: saying that immigrants built this country, that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, and that we have to make room for the good immigrants but crack down on the criminal immigrants. That has been a real challenge for people in the immigrant rights movement, because in order to advocate for good immigrants, you have to sell short the bad ones and say, “We don’t want to fight for reform of the 1996 immigration law [the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act] that increased the criminalization and detention of immigrants.” You can’t advocate or talk about that because it would endanger the “good immigrants” trying to get their driver’s licenses.