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We are All Suspects Now

Exploring the human cost of the post-9/11 immigration crackdown

| Wed Nov. 16, 2005 4:00 AM EST

MJ: In some of the stories, there was almost a sense of morbid absurdity about what was happening to targeted immigrants.

TN: It’s hard to capture that now, four years down the line. Even the organizers, lawyers, and advocates’ heads were spinning about how this was going down. We’re able to look back, and it’s all been well-documented now. I remember at the time this whole overwhelming sense of crisis. I really wish I’d been able to write something about Texas. Texas has huge detention prisons, and a lot of people from all over the country are flown there and warehoused. I was talking to a lawyer who was working on a one-man detention project out of Dallas, talking about so many people getting picked up and flown in from other places that there was a detention prison that used to be a meatpacking plant. The basically built bars over it and turned it into a big cage to house people. It was really terrifying and surreal.

MJ: You write about how post-9/11 issues have been framed mainly within a civil liberties and national security framework. What does this framework leave out?

TN: It doesn’t capture the real, far-reaching impact in immigrant communities and lives. They didn’t know what civil liberties meant. They didn’t care about due process, because they weren’t getting anything. How do you capture what was happening in a way that’s more true to that level of experience?

If I say “civil liberties,” for a white general audience, they tend to think of the PATRIOT Act and the library sneak ‘n’ peek, or surveillance—can the government spy on us, that type of concern, which are real concerns. But what needs to be raised up are also the human rights of immigrants, who are on the front lines of being affected by this. It’s not just a matter of surveillance or having library books monitored. It’s much more than that.

MJ: You write briefly about your own family’s immigration experience as refugees from Vietnam. How did that personal history inform the book?

TN: I had some struggle over whether to include myself at all in this book, because I really wanted to make it about the people who were directly affected. Then it became clear to me later the usefulness of enlarging the circle of people that we’re calling on to stand up and be involved in this. More of us should be thinking of that and repudiating the mentality that it’s them and not us. In the beginning, people were saying, “Oh, we’re Sikh, we’re not Muslim.” Well, that’s understandable, but what if you were Muslim?

There are so many pieces of me in it, in terms of really identifying with the families. So much of it is about family separation, about breaking up families, locking up mostly the men of the family, and deportation. I really know what that’s like—to be concerned about staying together and where you are headed next, where you can find your home. All of those things were at the core of my experience, and I really empathized with these other families in doing the reporting and writing.

MJ: In terms of media coverage of the war on terror, do you think sometimes there is too much focus on people and events outside of the country, as opposed to within the U.S.?

TN: If you look at some of the coverage of the war on terror, it’s either focused on Iraq and what the U.S. foreign policy has been, or Guantanamo. For a long time, when we were talking about secret detainees, the general public thought it was about Guantanamo. I don’t think there’s enough linking of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo to how the U.S. criminal justice system operates. A few organizers have been talking about the similarity between driving while Black and Brown, racial profiling, and the mass incarceration of African Americans. They’re comparing the police’s gang databases, for instance, with the databases set up to go after immigrant absconders. That’s the domestic face of the war on terror. It’s not just about detainees in Cuba in Guantanamo Bay. It’s [about] your neighbor next door having the FBI come in and visit.

MJ: What do you think about what’s happening in London since the bombings, as compared to what has happened here?

TN: What I find really interesting from London is they seem to have a much more integrated campaign around suspect communities and really articulating the failures of the war on terror domestically. They have a really strong critique of the U.S. response, as well. Right after the London bombings, you heard more politicians saying we need to shift from calling it the war on terror to the global struggle against violent extremism. George Lakoff wrote a useful piece on AlterNet about this, about how they’re acknowledging that the foreign policy focus, the invasion of Iraq, that military response is really not adequate in preventing attacks at home. London is an example of that.


Now of course the drum beat moves on to more talk about [how] we need to focus on homeland security more, and fighting terror is about crime fighting, more law enforcement. It’s a real danger. U.S. communities of color and U.S. immigrant communities can really raise our voices and say what homeland security operations have meant thus far, showing they have been deeply flawed, deeply misguided, and made a lot of people insecure in these targeted communities. They have arguably not contributed very much to national security overall. How much more secure does it make us if mostly what they’re doing is shipping off taxi drivers and restaurant workers and petty criminals?

MJ: You claim that what began as a post-9/11 anti-terrorism round-up devolved into a broader anti-immigration crackdown. What was the government’s thinking? Was it simply, ‘Hey, let’s expand our policies to entrap more immigrants’?

TN: If you want to be cynical or conspiracy-minded about it, a lot of people do think that [the government] knew it was a chance to do an immigration clean-up. There was almost a PR benefit, too, being able to say, ‘We are doing something about national security,’ and these are the easy targets to get. It was a calculation in terms of being able to show that you’re doing something about homeland security and going after the people that you could round up the most easily and show the most arrests and process them in a system that doesn’t have a lot of judicial protections.

MJ: The premise of We are All Suspects Now is that all immigrants have become both possible victims and suspects. Does this idea of everyone as a possible suspect apply to White people too? And where do non-immigrant blacks fit in?

TN: We can all be affected, at varying levels. White activists have been targeted on the no-fly list. In that sense, as a society, we do have something to lose collectively. It’s useful to build a bigger movement. But I remember giving a talk at a church with a mostly White audience. Afterwards, a woman said to me, “Yeah, we should all worry because maybe I could be taken from my bed in the middle of the night next.” I highly doubt that would ever happen [laughs]. There is that privilege that a White citizen would have. The title is adapted from a quote in the first chapter where Mohsin Zaheer said in his community everybody was seen as a suspect.

The question of African Americans—that was a key question. There are such parallels to the laws, policies, and sentencing structure for African Americans in U.S. prison system. But, at a community level, it’s been difficult. We’re often pitted against each other, immigrants and African Americans. There’s the overlap around the war on drugs and the war on crime. African Americans have this conflicted response. There was a surge of patriotism among everybody after September 11. This one artist I worked with for the magazine, he would see all these Black people waving flags after September 11. They want a country, too, they want to be able to claim this country too. It’s important that blacks and immigrants don’t get divided in this.

MJ: What is there to be done? What can we do to help these targeted communities? And what can we do to ensure this doesn’t happen the next time?

TN: More community connections are being developed now. More alliances are being built. Families for Freedom is doing a good job of crossing ethnicities and multiracial lines, organizing Caribbean immigrants, as well as South Asian, Arab, and Latinos. Hate-Free Zone in Seattle was a good example, with Somali and Middle Eastern immigrants.

At the local level, the urgent fights are around stopping the collaboration of law enforcement and immigration enforcement agencies. The community defense part of organizing has been critical, including organizing pro bono legal responses, where there is such a shortage, and organizing protests of detention conditions. They’re critical in calling attention to the human rights violations and the detention system, making that visible. Organizing the families of detainees, giving support to family members, and having them speak out in the media is also important.

Lastly, we really need to fight the big picture fight for public opinion. We’re losing that fight. This may be a critical point in the anti-war movement. The Bush administration is on the defensive about Iraq. On the media front, we need more investigative work exposing what they are actually carrying out in terms of homeland security. We need the media to put pressure on government agencies. A good example is Nina Bernstein’s work in the New York Times--I think she’s just brilliant. We need to get at this question of legal status. It’s become such a dividing line. People look at those who were detained and say they’re not terrorists, but they’re still illegal. They still don’t belong here. We need to say status does not trump human rights. So much erosion has happened in dehumanizing migrants that a lot becomes acceptable. Does a human being’s legal status determine what human rights they have? People are rotting in jail and families are being broken up for administrative infractions.

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