November 7, 2003

Immigrants and refugees’ rights in the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks

By Emmanuelle Le Texier
CCIS - Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies , UCSD

The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California - San Diego (UCSD) hosted a debated panel on immigrants and refugees rights in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This seminar opened the floor to San Diego lawyers, civil liberties activists, and academics such as Wayne Cornelius, director of the CCIS, Fausta Albi (immigration lawyer, Larrabee & Zimmerman), Lilia Velazquez (California Western School of Law), Claudia Smith (California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation) and Robert McLaughlin (anthropologist - University of Chicago).

All the participants made a clear point to what they called the shift of paradigm on immigration legislation - that started in 1996 with the IIRIRA legislation (Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act) and was heightened after the terrorist bombing. “We have been entering a new period where the victims are victimized and the immigrants are assimilated to criminals”, said Lilia Velazquez. We have shifted from a civil liberties and human rights approach to a national security perspective on immigration issues. And above all, these institutional changes are not only threatening basic rights of individuals, but they are also reducing rights of lawful long term residents and American citizens. By extension, they constitute a threat to the unity and integrity of the whole American society.

First, recent legislative transformations violate American law and international human rights standards. The enforcement of the USA Patriot Act in 2001 allows to detain immigrants and foreign visitors indefinitely in case of suspicion. The enhancement of the border security act implemented a set of biometrics criteria for passports and visa controls. The SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitors Information System) tightened the entry criteria for students in the U.S, provoking the loss of the richness of international students that prefer to study in other country where they feel they are welcome. Different visible operations have taken place to further track potential terrorists, such as Operation Tarmac that aimed at arresting and checking records of mostly immigrants working at airports location (baggage handlers, cleaning women etc.) and Operation Game Day in San Diego, during the SuperBowl Game. They often targeted Middle-eastern, Arab, Muslims and Mexican individuals.

Second, the human costs of deprivation of individuals rights are multiple. The major consequences for the immigrant community, especially the Mexican immigrant community, is the reinforcement of the use of ethnic and racial profiling and Border Patrol sweeps in Barrio communities and public places, as a legitimate tool against terrorism. In San Diego, recorded Claudia Smith, people have been arrested outside “catholic churches, schools, food centers, even in front of the Mexican consulate”. The scarce benefits acquired thanks to the matricula consular and the access to driving licenses will probably be removed soon. Moreover, the refugees, especially women refugees, are the first to suffer from these new legislative policies. Before 2001, the refugee ceiling was 90.000 a year but the acceptance rate dropped dramatically, in 2002 only 28.000 refugees were granted asylum in the U.S., and in 2003, only 26.000 benefited from a resettlement program. The refugee program is another casualty of the war against terrorism.

Third, the retrogression on citizen and immigrants rights is not cyclical but a deep institutional change. On the one hand, as Robert McLaughlin pointed out, this period is worst than WWII war against communism, because current detention policies “seem closer to the Japanese internment process and broader in scale and numbers”. On the other hand, the inefficiency of the former INS bureaucracy and the lack of resources and competence at different legislative levels allow the existence of unfair and unjust treatment of cases (such as appeals, demands for reunification etc.). According to Fausta Albi, even for immigration lawyers experts, the constant renewal of laws makes it “difficult to monitor and to comprehend in term of its application. When there is a lack of training and a focus on enforcement issues, this is the worst combination you can get for immigrants and refugees rights”.

The discussion concluded through a pessimistic but combative dynamics. All the panelists insisted on the fact that as foreign nationals do not vote, they don’t have a voice to defend their rights, they simply are the first to suffer from the retrogression of civil liberties. Only strong lobbying at different government levels, coalitions of community organizations and citizens individual promotion of human rights and civil liberties can counteract this loss of freedom.

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