May 30, 2003

Ethnic Media and ACLU Come Together Around Civil Liberties

La Prensa San Diego Shares Its Experiences at Forum

By Sandip Roy

“La migra está aquí (The immigration officers are here).” The Spanish language daily La Opinión says it gets more and more panic-stricken calls like these as the immigration crackdown intensifies.

Post 9/11 and the PATRIOT-USA ACT, immigrants, both legal and illegal, have found themselves especially vulnerable as laws change or are enforced with new vigor. Organizations like the ACLU have been at the forefront of challenging some of the new laws in court. Ethnic communities are the ones most affected by the crackdown. Representatives of the ethnic media, and ACLU came together in Los Angeles at a forum hosted by NCM and ACLU on May 20 to discuss the state of civil liberties from the point of view of those who were grappling with them on the ground.

The prevailing sentiment in many of the communities is one of fear and confusion. Gabriel Lerner of La Opinión had hoped to bring a witness who could recount the story of her experience with the INS crackdown. But at the last minute she balked at more media exposure. Many others had similar stories. One Arab media organization whose computers were seized by law enforcement was afraid to go public with the story.

The fear stems from cultural backgrounds of many immigrants and persecution by government in their home countries, said Samina Faheem of the American Muslim Alliance who was canvassing support for arrested University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian. Faheem said people were so nervous that it was becoming hard to even raise money for his legal representation.

But the fear is not limited to these communities. Some journalists said they were nervous about writing the stories. “Who will protect us?” wondered one of the attendees. Cora Pastrana of Balita News said the fear was real. She said an activist who had spoken out against the unfairness of the citizenship requirements for airport baggage screeners got a visit from an anti-terrorism task force who asked if he was from the Mindanao province in the Philippines where the Abu Sayyaf guerillas are based.

But Hossein Hedjazi, veteran broadcaster with Radio Iran, said fear also propelled the community to organize. He recounted how thousands of Iranians took to the streets in orderly protest in Los Angeles after the first reports of detentions during special registration for Iranian males in December 2002.

As a minority that had largely eschewed politics in the U.S., Iranians turned to one community who had a long history of fighting for its civil rights- the Hispanic community. Daniel Muñoz, publisher of La Prensa told his friend Ramin Moshiri, an engineer who belonged to a professional Iranian group that he had to get the story out to the media “to put a face on your community.” “It was a learning experience for us,” said Moshiri. “I would think I’d written too much and they would tell me ‘That’s nothing.’” Muñoz said though much of the initial crackdown targeted Middle Easterners, he realized the implications were broader. “Once you make a law, it’s really hard to get it off the books and it affects everyone. These laws will affect us tomorrow and 10 years from now,” said Muñoz.

The immigration crackdown has already led to “criminalization of Latinos in general” said Gabriel Lerner of La Opinión. He described a recent raid by immigration officers at LAX airport where 16 people, mostly from Mexico, were arrested.

The events since 9/11 evoke a painful sense of deja vu for Ellen Endo of the 100 year-old Japanese Rafu Shimpo newspaper who described how during the height of anti-Japanese hysteria during WWII, its publisher was arrested and detained for four years in New Mexico. But she said the incarceration of so many Japanese-Americans also led them to establish connections and set up civil rights organizations that served them well for years to come. “So when the recent events started happening with Middle Easterners they just swung into action,” said Endo, explaining why Japanese Americans were among the first to protest racial profiling and discrimination after 9/11.

“The American public is not particularly worried because they think the PATRIOT ACT affects only immigrants from the Middle East,” said Gary Williams, President of ACLU’s board of directors. “Americans need to understand it affects all of them.” Describing various lawsuits the ACLU has filed recently, Ben Wizner, staff attorney for the ACLU, said it was reports of small incidents and anecdotes culled from different sources that eventually could form the basis of a real challenge to laws. “Americans don’t understand issues without anecdotes,” said Wizner.

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