Being Brown in America

Indian-Americans pass a police checkpoint at Yankee Stadium in New York to attend a memorial service called "A Prayer For America" Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001, in the Bronx borough of New York. The service is to remember those who have been lost in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The men are members of the Sikh faith. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Syed Mahmood, a marketing consultant in Union City, CA, who grew up in Pakistan, decided to run for the 13th Congressional District in California this year. Then his campaign headquarters started getting calls describing him as a “turban head” and “camel jockey.”

Hitesh Tolani, a 20 year-old junior in Columbia, SC, who came to the U.S. when he was 18 months old, was applying for permanent residency so he could accept scholarships from Ivy League colleges. Then the INS informed him and his mother that they needed to leave the country. His mother had omitted to file their papers years ago while coping with his father’s death and her own breast cancer. His 15-year-old brother Ravi, an American citizen by birth, could stay.

Sonia Gawas continues to live in Franklin Township, NJ after her husband was killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Now she wonders if she is going to have to go back to India when her husband’s visa expires because her visa was dependent on her husband’s work visa. She cannot work or travel freely on that visa.

Mahmood, Gawas, and Tolani probably do not know each other. But the South Asian Americans are bound by forces beyond their control—aftershock of Sept. 11, 2001. While Americans of all shades have felt shock, fear, anger, and grief, for immigrants, there is one more emotion—confusion. Immigrants have felt that in America if you obeyed the law you would do OK. Now many are confused as to what the law is.

All everyone knows for sure is that the tremors from 9/11 are still being felt in immigrant communities. The numbers speak for themselves.

With his wife Indira at his side, Indian Ambasador to the United States Lalit Mansingh, center, lights a candle at the base of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi across from the Indian Embassy in Washington Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001 during a vigil by the Indian-American community for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  (AP Photo/Reginald Pearman)
With his wife Indira at his side, Indian Ambasador to the United States Lalit Mansingh, center, lights a candle at the base of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi across from the Indian Embassy in Washington Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001 during a vigil by the Indian-American community for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Reginald Pearman)

• The number of H-1B visas issued by the INS from Oct. 1, 2001-Jun. 30, 2002 dropped by more than 53 percent compared to the previous year.

• Requests for new H-1B visas or extensions fell to 159,000 for the Oct 1, 2001-Jun. 30, 2002 timeframe compared to 270,000 the year before, and 220,000 the year before that.

• A majority of Asian Americans in California (59 percent) feel less secure about their daily life after Sept. 11 according to a recent multilingual poll conducted by New California Media and the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism.

• An overwhelming majority of Pakistanis (80 percent) felt that since Sept.11 they have been the victims of discrimination on a more frequent basis according to the same poll.

• In the week following Sept. 11, 2001, there were at least 645 incidents of bias, vandalism, arson, and assault against those perceived to be from a Middle Eastern or South Asian background according to American Backlash, a report issued by SAALT (South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow).

Detentions and Deportations:

“The most frustrating thing about detentions is the lack of information,” says Jayashri Srikantiah, staff attorney with the ACLU in Northern California. The ACLU has been trying to wrest details about who is being held, where and why from the government but the veil of secrecy around the whole process has made every step an uphill struggle.

Some recent court decisions disputing the need to keep deportation hearings closed have been encouraging for the ACLU but it is still slow going. They have to rely on families or community groups to find out about detainees. “We hear about detainees in Northern California, we go to investigate and find they have been moved,” says Srikantiah. Unlike criminal courts, immigration courts do not guarantee detainees a lawyer though they can request one. “This makes immigrants really vulnerable,” says Srikantiah. “Recent immigrants make up a pool of people who may not speak English well, be scared and have no idea how to access resources.”

What the ACLU does know is, there have been at least 600 secret deportation hearings. They also estimate that after Sept. 11 about 1,200 people had been detained by the government, most of them on visa violations. This has been called the most extensive program of preventive detention since World War II. And the FBI means business. Helal Omeira, Executive Director of the Northern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says, “When the FBI went out anywhere they had INS agents with them—they were looking to deport.”

Many of these detainees have been Pakistani. Newspapers revealed that hundreds of Pakistanis were secretly flown back to Pakistan in July and August, most of them too scared to fight the deportation orders even though they had no connections to terrorism. “Designating someone as being related to terrorism is like putting a scarlet letter on them,” says Srikantiah. In 9/11 related deportations there is always the danger that the country you are from might refuse to take you back. Also a 9/11 detainee may be cleared by an immigration judge but could languish in jail waiting for FBI clearance.
It is not just people with suspected visa violations who are at risk. Saad Ahmad, an immigration and civil rights attorney in San Jose, knows an American permanent resident whose friend was visiting him from Pakistan. “He didn’t know about it, but his friend apparently overstayed his visa,” says Ahmad. “The INS caught the friend and put the permanent resident in deportation proceedings as well for harboring a visa violator.”

Profiling and Discrimination:

After 9/11 every week seemed to bring out another story about airline discrimination. A Pakistani-American going to his brother’s wedding missed it when the crew found him suspicious. An Indian actress gesturing excitedly at the New York skyline from the airplane caused military fighters to escort the plane.

Flying while brown is risky for everyone but the “foreignness” of immigrants makes them especially vulnerable. In June, the ACLU filed lawsuits against four major carriers for ejecting passengers because of race or ethnicity. One of the plaintiffs was Arshad Chowdhury of Pittsburgh, who was ejected from his Northwest flight because “the pilot had found a ‘phonetic similarity’ between (his) name and someone on their watch list.” He was cleared but a security block remained around his name and the next time he was flying on a different carrier he was refused a boarding pass again.

It’s a tricky issue trying to balance security and civil rights. Saad Ahmad points out that the department of transportation has sent out memos to major airlines saying that while public safety was important they could not discriminate against passengers based on race, religion, or ethnicity. “The issue is pilots need to be properly trained in figuring out how to deal with these situations,” says Srikantiah.

It’s not just airlines that are looking out for men who look like Arshad Chowdhury. Srikantiah points to the U.S. Department of Justice directive requiring law enforcement interviews of men between the ages of 18 and 33 from countries regarded as being of high risk. Srikantiah does not dispute the need to gather information but says, “broad-based targeting of individuals based on their ethnicity and national origin is nothing more than racial profiling.”

The questioning took place in two waves—some 5,000 men in November 2001 and then another 3,000 in April. The process was simple says Helal Omeira. “The FBI comes knocking at your door and if you are not there they leave a card asking if you could give them a call,” he says. It is supposed to be voluntary.
“The scary thing for immigrants is many of them come from countries where you cannot say ‘No’ to law enforcement,” says Srikantiah. Saad Ahmad has sat in on some of the interviews. He says the interviews he attended were non-confrontational. The officials asked a slew of questions about organizations the interviewees belonged to and charities they had given money to.

Charities have been a major concern after the government designated some as having links to terrorist organizations. Ahmad advises people to do due diligence before donating money and make sure the charity is not on the list of “terrorist-linked” organizations put out by the state department. But even though there is no guarantee that an organization will not get into the state department’s bad books in the future. “The Holy Land Foundation had been audited ten times by the federal government,” says Omeira before it had its accounts frozen.

But in the midst of the discrimination there is hope. The New California Media-USC Annenberg poll found that even as they felt more insecure about their lives, immigrants in California overwhelmingly felt more American. Eighty-one percent of Middle Easterners said they felt welcome in America. Another poll conducted by CAIR found that almost 90 percent of American Muslims surveyed said they knew of a fellow Muslim who experienced discrimination post 9/11. But the same poll found three in four American Muslims (79 percent) also experienced kindness or support from friends or colleagues of other faiths. “Haters who were haters before Sept. 11 are still haters,” says Omeira. “But for every negative message, we have received 20 positive messages.”

Visa Woes:

Saad Ahmad’s client was pulled over on Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco for what should have been a routine traffic violation. But instead of needing to spend a Saturday at traffic school, he ended up in a detention center. There was a visa violation in his record that he thought was long forgotten. “The point is, these rules have been on the books for a long time,” says Ahmad. “Now they are really being enforced.”

One of the rules that have been resurrected from INS Stone Age is the requirement for non-immigrants to file an address change form with the INS within 10 days of moving. Most immigrants, whether H-1B visa holders or permanent residents, were never even aware that they needed to file form AR-11. “I have been here for 12 years, moved from apartment to apartment. Bought a house, sold it, bought a bigger house and now I don’t know what to do,” said a software engineer from India who had not known about AR-11. It is doubtful that the INS would find time to do anything else if it had to chase down all the immigrants who ever switched apartments but neither will anyone guarantee that they will not.

Indu Liladhar, an immigrant lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been getting a lot of calls from anxious immigrants like that engineer. They are worried that filing it now will draw more attention to them. Liladhar advises her clients to send in their AR-11s by certified mail and keep a copy for their own records.

AR-11s affect so many immigrants that Frank Pallone, chair of Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft that the sudden enforcement of this 50-year-old provision “is unfair and simply a scare tactic that serves to punish legally abiding residents.”

It’s not just changing addresses that can unwittingly trip up immigrants. Saad Ahmad says students need to be careful. Activities the INS traditionally turned a blind eye to can jeopardize their visa now. For example

• Foreign students working off campus without getting a hardship waiver

• Students working more than 20 hours a week

• Full—time students not maintaining 12 full credits.

Similarly H-1B visa transfers are being scrutinized by the INS much more stringently. If someone on H-1B has been laid off and their chances of getting another job are slim, Ahmad advises them to change their status to something else like a student. “Protect your status at all costs,” says Ahmad. “If for some reason you end up out of status and get put in a detention center, it could take months before you get your day in court.”

Registration and Fingerprinting:

When a proposal was announced to make tourist visas valid for only 30 days by default rather than six months, South Asians launched an angry Internet campaign. The INS tried to assure them that people with legitimate reasons to stay longer than 30 days would be allowed to do so. Now Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision that visitors from “high-risk” countries would be finger-printed has led to an uproar.

But Srikantiah says the proposals around finger-printing and tracking exits and registering periodically have wider implications. “If you don’t leave in time, your name could be in a national crime database. And it will show up next time a traffic cop pulls you over for running a red light,” she warns. Involvement of local police in immigration law enforcement is particularly worrying for people like Srikantiah. “If an immigrant feels they cannot approach the police they won’t be able to access the public services they pay taxes for,” she says. For the police it will mean they will find it harder to build trust with immigrant communities, which is why some police departments in California have come out against the idea.

Limitations on Right to Dissent:

Srikantiah says she had been getting a lot of calls from people nervous about belonging to groups that might have controversial viewpoints whether about the war on terror or Palestine. Omeira worries that this fear will end up distorting the very ideal it seeks to protect—what it means to be American.

“People who immigrate here sometimes have more appreciation of what America means than the native born,” he says remembering how his father, a Syrian immigrant, would be upset when he heard Americans talking about burning the flag. The ability to speak one’s mind, to dissent and not be persecuted for it is what many immigrants found amazing about America. “Now many are disappointed,” says Omeira. “People feel they had left all that behind—secret activities, wire-tapping, people disappearing.”

With his wife Indira at his side, Indian Ambasador to the United States Lalit Mansingh, center, lights a candle at the base of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi across from the Indian Embassy in Washington Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001 during a vigil by the Indian-American community for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  (AP Photo/Reginald Pearman)
With his wife Indira at his side, Indian Ambasador to the United States Lalit Mansingh, center, lights a candle at the base of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi across from the Indian Embassy in Washington Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001 during a vigil by the Indian-American community for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Reginald Pearman)

Becoming Citizens:

Liladhar says since 9/11, she has been getting a lot more calls from green card holders who want to file for citizenship. Many of them had been in the country for years but now she says, “they want to take the plunge because they feel they would be a lot more protected.” But there is a caveat. Ahmad cautions those rushing to become citizens that if they had any prior run-ins with the law or gray areas in their immigration history or belonged to an association that could be problematic, they need to consult an immigration attorney first. He knows people who applied for citizenship and found themselves put into removal proceedings because they had been out of the country for more than two years. His advice is to make sure permanent residents get re-entry permits if they are planning to be outside the U.S. for more than six months.

Though the issues are grave, the South Asian community has been somewhat scattered in its response. “People care the most when people like them are affected,” says Srikantiah. “That’s why issues like airlines discrimination garnered a huge response across class and religion.” Likewise for those who never filled out their change of address forms or whose families want to visit for three months. A community, often regarded as politically apathetic, was suddenly organizing Internet letter-writing campaigns and writing to newspapers.

As for the deportations and detentions, people may not agree with them but tend not to become activists about them. “People from our part of the world are very risk averse,” explains Ahmad. “They don’t want to be part of any controversy.” There are also class elements that creep into these kinds of immigrant issues. The deportees are often illegal immigrants, working under the table. Picked up by the authorities, they simply disappear. Or organizations like CAIR tend to respond to them because they are mostly Muslim. But more and more South Asians are finding that the comfort of “it can’t happen to us” is illusory. “If it’s one of us now, it will be another one soon,” warns Srikantiah.

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.

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