Immigrants have got a bad rap since 9/11. Suffering racial profiling, hate crimes, job loss, arbitrary detention, deportation, and denial of due process, they have become convenient scapegoats after the tragedy.

The dust had barely settled on the rubble of the World Trade Center when the Justice Department arrested and detained over 1,200 Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants who were not even suspected of criminal activity. For months they were held without charges and denied access to counsel.

While the country was still reeling from the shock of the attacks, and engulfed in patriotic fervor, the Congress hastily passed the USA Patriot Act with little public debate. The law accords broad powers to investigative agencies like the FBI to spy on immigrants and citizens. While the Patriot Act threatens the privacy of citizens also, its most ominous provisions strip the basic civil liberties of non-citizens. It permits detention and deportation of non-citizens who provide assistance even for lawful activities of a group the government claims is a terrorist organization.

The harassment continues with a “voluntary” program that requires men between 18 and 35 from several Muslim countries with non-immigrant visas—foreign students, tourists, researchers—to register with immigration authorities. While this program has caused distress to over 100,000 non-citizens and their families, and resulted in some deportations due to minor visa violations, there is little evidence that the security of the citizenry has been enhanced.

Emboldened by this tide against immigrants, anti-immigration advocates have come out of the woodworks vociferously promoting their agendas. Before 9/11 the Bush administration was moving towards a plan to grant legal status to Mexican migrant workers. After the attacks, negotiations with President Vicente Fox of Mexico were shelved, and instead, the U.S. Border Patrol tightened the surveillance of the Mexican border. Mexicans have lost their lives in desperate attempts to slip through the border in truck trailers, while Americans are no safer.

It is time to turn the tide. We need to remind our elected representatives that immigrants have always formed the bedrock of American economy and culture. They do much of the research in our universities, provide health care in remote areas, build our homes, harvest our crops, and drive technical innovation. They are part of our families. It is time to move beyond fear and repeal shortsighted laws that unfairly target immigrants.

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