By KAREN K. NARASAKI
It’s hard to believe a decade has passed since the terrible attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I’ll never forget that day – the fear, confusion and heartbreak as we watched the news unfold.
Our offices are not far from the White House, which was rumored to be a target, so we sent our staff home while others were stuck in airports overseas, ironically on their way back from the United Nations World Conference Against Racism and other forms of xenophobia.
The next day, a new kind of fear set in. It was becoming clear that Asian and Middle Eastern Americans were being unjustly targeted for retribution out of ignorance and hate. In many cases, our government itself ran roughshod over our Constitution in the hysteria and uncertainty that followed the attacks. Looking like the enemy was enough to be treated as one.
The parallels to internment of Japanese Americans during World War II are clear. Many Japanese Americans lost their property, businesses and dignity as they were carted off to internment camps spread throughout the West. Images of that time stand as iconic reminders of what can happen when wartime hysteria is allowed to overcome the Constitution.
Barracks – like the ones that housed my mother and father – in neat rows, standing stark against the desert landscape. Barbed wire ringed camp perimeters. This kind of preemptive detention is what degrades our rule of law and undermines our humanity as a nation.
Support from conscientious citizens and organizations alike formed to combat such misguided prejudice in the wake of 9/11. AAJC (Asian American Justice Center) convened leaders from the South Asian community who were particularly under siege, some because they were Muslim and some because they just looked like they could be.
We published a special hate crimes report documenting the violence targeting our community. We denounced racial profiling and fought against programs that sought to skirt due process protections and round up immigrants based on their ethnicity and religion. We joined with other civil rights, civil liberties, human rights and immigrant rights groups to form the Rights Working Group, a coalition defending the civil and human rights particularly of immigrant communities.
Particularly disturbing is the use of racial and other discriminatory profiling in the enforcement of civil immigration laws as a back road effort to eroding due process protections. These measures impact a large portion of the Asian American community. Nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans are immigrants. There are more than 2.7 million South Asians in the United States. Almost one in five Muslims in America are of South Asian descent.
After 9/11, thousands of Arab, Muslim and South Asian young males were detained for an indefinite period of time, mostly on the basis of minor immigration violations unrelated to criminal activity, much less terrorism. This system of preventive detention – based on selective enforcement of young males from select countries rather than individualized suspicion – amounted to massive racial profiling.
Amid these harmful measures were some successes. Over the past several years, we successfully challenged several efforts to further erode the rights of immigrants to due process. And after 10 years of advocacy, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decided to de-list countries whose nationals have been subjected to discriminatory registration and tracking under the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS).
Implemented after Sept. 11, NSEERS required non-immigrants from predominantly Arab, South Asian and Muslim-majority countries to register at ports of entry. It also required immigrants from these countries already residing in the U.S. on temporary visas to register, during which they were fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated. Among the over 80,000 males who registered, not one has ever been convicted of terrorism. Unfortunately, despite this small victory, DHS has also stated that while countries are now de-listed, NSEERS regulation is still in place should a special registration program be needed in the future.
Sadly, the work is still necessary today. Last year, as part of the Rights Working Group’s Face the Truth campaign to end racial profiling, I served as a national commissioner and heard many heart-rending stories of the impact of racial and religious profiling. Our San Francisco affiliate, the Asian Law Caucus, has been doing cutting-edge work on the issue of ethnic and national origin profiling at our airports.
Earlier this year, AAJC joined SAALT (South Asian American Leaders for Tomorrow), JACL, OCA (Organization of Chinese Americans) and other civil rights groups in denouncing the singling out of Muslim Americans in a hearing entitled “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community” convened by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
As we mourn the victims of the terrorist attacks this September 11, let us also remember those whose lives were also impacted in the aftermath. Please join us in the work of advancing justice.
Narasaki is president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center (www.advancingequality.org) in Washington, D.C.