Jan. 18 — Nearly 500 people of Middle Eastern descent remain in jail four months after the September 11 terrorist attacks—and getting information about them has not been easy. But Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has made it a priority.
AFTER A FRUITLESS MEETING last fall with FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, the ACLU joined with other groups and filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. The response they’ve gotten—Romero calls it “inadequate”—offers few new details about those being detained. The newly released figures do show that more people have been detained than initially thought: about 725 individuals have been held on immigration violations since September 11. It also reveals that some were not charged until several days after their arrest. But names and lawyers were omitted. The ACLU plans to pursue further legal action to learn more details. NEWSWEEK’s Jennifer Barrett spoke with Romero about his ongoing efforts to obtain information on the detainees and his concerns about potential civil-rights violations.
NEWSWEEK: How many detainees are you aware of personally that were picked up in the sweeps after September 11?
Anthony Romero: I’m aware of 300 or so, of which we have the names. But there are many more ... that’s what we’re really concerned about.
What is the status of the detainees you’ve contacted? Have any been released or deported yet?
We are still trying to determine the status of all the detainees. I’m personally aware of more than 10 who were granted “voluntary departure,” which means that the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] has reviewed their family and work history and agreed to let them leave the country without a black mark on their immigration records. But despite the fact that these individuals have agreed to leave, they have been sitting in detention for weeks on end, because the government says they want to review their records further. Where does it end?
You had to file a lawsuit to force the Justice Department to release information on these detainees. What other measures have you taken to get more information?
We’re not hopeful that we’ll get much more information from the government. At the same time, we continue to pursue getting information from every other channel we have available. We’ve made outreach efforts to local mosques and Islamic centers. We’ve contacted various immigration lawyers.
How would you describe the response you received from the Justice Department? Will you pursue further legal action to get additional information?
The government’s response to our Freedom of Information Act Request was wholly inadequate and we are going to be pressing that lawsuit further until the official veil of secrecy is lifted. What little information we did receive indicates that the government has held scores of detainees in jail for seven days or longer without any charges in apparent violation of law; that at least 177 additional people have been detained since the end of November and that some detainees whose cases are identified as “inactive” are still being jailed and their names withheld. I think it’s important to note that what we are seeking is the kind of information that is routinely made public in the United States legal system and that helps to ensure that our government is preserving our freedom as well as our security.
You’ve also sent letters to the New York consulates of Pakistan, Egypt, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen offering your services in working with residents of those countries who are being detained in the United States. Why?
The idea came from a conversation I had with the [ACLU] executive committee. I was voicing my frustration about not getting information on individuals in detention. We’d sent letters to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Justice Department, and we’d met with [FBI director] Robert Mueller III and asked him how many were being detained and what the charges were and whether they have access to lawyers and family members, and [if] due process was secured, [if] conditions were good. He completely stonewalled us. He thanked us for [our] questions but didn’t answer them. So we started thinking about how else we could get information.
We’d gathered a number of media reports from all over the country, and so we started organizing them into individual dossiers on each case. Now, we have hundreds. With the letters, we thought detainees might be in touch with their government—so we targeted the top 10 countries [i.e., those with the most number of citizens being detained]. We just sent letters out with copies of a “Know your rights” brochure and followed up with phone calls to embassies and consulates.
What has the response been?
The General Consul from Pakistan called right away, and we saw him the next day. We heard from them that many individuals who had been in touch had been told that if they contacted the consulate it would delay proceedings. Many were quite unsure about the charges being brought against them. Many don’t speak English well, and they have family in Pakistan so their network is not as strong here. They don’t have access to lawyers. Their ability to contact the outside world was limited. Many were disoriented and depressed and concerned.
What do you think of the Justice Department’s recent announcement that it will make the arrest and deportation of about 6,000 Middle Eastern men who have ignored deportation orders the department’s highest priority?
Our greatest concern has to do with the selective prosecution of individuals who have overstayed visas. We have no problem deporting those who have broken immigration laws, but they should enforce them fairly and uniformly and in a nondiscriminatory way. There are more than 300,000 outstanding deportation orders, but the Justice Department is only focusing on 6,000 of them, based exclusively on nationality and ethnicity.
What are your feelings on the increased powers given to the government under the Patriot Act and the new Justice Department regulations implemented since September 11?
Our main concern is that there is a growing momentum focusing on a specific community, regarding them as suspicious merely because of where they are from. The government should focus on what they have done, not where they were born. You add this to the “voluntary” questioning of 5,000 men and the detention of immigrants and you find a broader effort that portrays a particular community or group as hostile or contrary to national security. That just fuels the fires of xenophobia against Middle Eastern, Arab and Muslim communities.
How do you keep that from happening?
You scrutinize government actions and ensure that these individuals who are being detained know their rights, so they can exercise those rights when they interface with the government. Also, you raise the core questions of civil liberties and freedom and the need to balance national security and freedom. One thing I am quite concerned about is that the war against terrorism is unlike any other war we’ve ever fought. The targets are civilians and the enemy may live in our midst, and there may never be a public, decisive end to the war. So it’s unlike World War II, where we could let the Japanese-Americans out of the internment camps at the end of the war.
The atmosphere now is similar to portions of the Red Scare, the fear and hysteria around the Japanese internment, where we use race and ethnicity as proxy for discrimination. Targeting the Middle Eastern, Arab, Muslim communities flies in the face of the core values of America being a nation of immigrants. This strikes at the heart of who we are as a country and what type of country we want to be.
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