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.
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.