American Muslims Live in Fear of Govt

Harsh immigration and anti-terrorism laws have had a devastating effect on many Muslim communities in the U.S., leaving a legacy of fear and disillusionment, especially among young people, Asian activists said Thursday.

In post-Sep. 11 America, immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries have been victimized by U.S. legislation that unjustly targets them as a group, creating an environment of instability in immigrant communities that remains today, human rights and legal experts said at a panel discussion at the Asia Society headquarters in New York.

"Isn’t it ironic that the same country that occupied Iraq in the name of promoting democracy and human rights, that the same government engages in such gross human rights right here at home?" said Mallika Dutt, the panel’s moderator and executive director of the human rights group Breakthrough.

The panel focused mainly on the now-terminated U.S. program that required men as young as 16 from 25 predominantly Muslim nations to register with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Some 83,000 Muslim men registered with the program, officially called the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS), from its inception in September 2002 to its termination in April 2003.

Out of those 83,000, some 14,000 were taken to detention centers or deported. Not one of them was ever charged with a terrorism-related crime.

A documentary film focusing on the post-Sep. 11 experiences of three Muslim immigrant youths in New York with prejudice, incarceration and deportation was also screened and discussed. Titled "Whose Children Are These?", it shows how the lives of the three teens were turned upside down by the U.S. registration law.

The U.S. government justified NSEERS in the name of preventing terrorist infiltration into the U.S. However, critics say the program was nothing more than legislated xenophobia and discrimination.

"Whole communities were devastated by this program because of the panic it instilled in immigrant communities," said Theresa Thanjan, the film’s director. Stressing that no one who registered with the program was ever indicted, Thanjan said, "We have to ask ourselves: ‘Was it actually worth it?’"

The short film starts off with the story of Navila, a 19-year-old Bangladeshi high school honor student.

Since Navila’s father was from one of the targeted 25 countries, he was required to register with the U.S. government. Navila says her father believed that complying with "special registration," as NSEERS is called in many immigrant communities, would help ensure his legal status in the U.S.

"Your father is an honest man," she says in the film, recalling the words of her father’s colleague. "He stepped into his own grave."

Navila’s father was detained for 11 months before being deported to Bangladesh.

"In high school I have learned that the United States of America stands for freedom," Navila’s younger brother Aqieb says in the film, reading from a letter he wrote to New York Senator Hillary Clinton. "I want my father free too."

The film also tells the story of a 17-year-old Pakistani boy named Mohammed who was detained and nearly deported by the special registration program

Mohammed, officially a minor at the time, was separated from his lawyer by U.S. officials and interrogated after registering at the program’s New York office.

"When I looked down the hall I saw a sea of Arab and Muslim countrymen with their heads in their hands and fear in their hearts," he says, recalling his experience.

"They came to live freely," Mohammed says. "Just because somebody that looks like them done something, they shouldn’t be penalized."

In the film, Mohammed, who has lived in the U.S. since he was a young child, says he was asked questions like "Where were you on 9/11?" and "Do you know Osama bin Laden?"

Deportation proceedings were thrown out after legal activists and human rights defenders continually pressed for his release.

The third Muslim youth, a 16-year-old from Egypt named Hagar, speaks of her experiences with anti-Muslim discrimination after 9/11.

After her New York high school was informed of the terrorist attacks, Hagar was told by her teacher to remove her hijab — a headscarf worn by some Muslim women — and go home quickly. On the way, she was yelled at and attacked with anti-Arab slurs, she says.

Hagar says the special registration program only helped reinforce anti-Muslim sentiment.

"When people see the government going to such great extent," to target Muslims, she says, people follow along. They think, "The government thinks that they’re bad, so I should too," she said.

While the program was scrapped nearly two years ago, immigrant defenders say its devastating legacy lives on.

"Even though things have died down, there’s still that sense of vulnerability," said Cyrus Mehta, a New York-based immigration lawyer. "The screws have been tightened."

"I used to believe America was a place where innocent people were not harmed, that innocent people were not chased after," Navila says in the film. "But that perspective changed when my father was detained."