Fear Factor

When "immigrant" and "terrorist" are made synonymous

Every couple of months, a group of local immigration attorneys gathers for lunch. The legal world they traverse has become mind-bogglingly complex since 9/11, so the conversations usually end up being an exchange of exasperating anecdotes that involve clients caught up in an overloaded, underfunded system suddenly charged with the amorphous task of fighting terror.

A young woman from Pakistan can't get an I.D. because she doesn't have a set of fingerprints, and she can't get a set of fingerprints without an I.D. A traveling salesman from Saudi Arabia hasn't been able to fly for nearly a year because his name has been misspelled on a critical document, and every time he goes to the trouble of having it changed, the mistake is repeated. A couple goes to Hennepin County to get a marriage license and a vigilante clerk unilaterally decides that, though the bride-to-be is a U.S. citizen and her brown-skinned fiancé is a lawful immigrant, their documentation is not adequate--even though Minnesota statutes don't require anything but a valid ID, which both possessed. On and on it goes, until you know what one attorney means when she jokes that "it's a good time to be a WASP."

Last week, this group of middle-class, middle-of-the-road professionals invited me to sit in on their confab. Notebook in hand, pen dutifully poised, I asked them to comment on the origin of these bureaucratic nightmares. My guess was that this administration's now-perpetual holy war, and a mass media high on jingoism, were encouraging pen-pushers in various bureaucracies to take up policing our borders, due process and civil liberties be damned. I also wanted details about both the practical and psychological impact of Attorney General Ashcroft's decision to change the name of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), and to make it an integral part of the Department of Homeland Security in late January.

Waiting, wondering, worrying: The early morning line at the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Waiting, wondering, worrying: The early morning line at the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services

The answers to the first question were actually heartening. Yes, many clients were jittery--especially those non-immigrant males from 25 countries known to harbor evildoers who were visiting or working temporarily in the United States. These people were called in to the BCIS to sign up for the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which involves a questionnaire, fingerprinting, and a picture. In a situation like that, it is always reasonable to worry that a paperwork error or an overzealous immigration agent could cause trouble. In addition, as the American Immigration Lawyers Association pointed out in a recent newsletter, the program "offers little protection because it targets people based on national origin, race, and religion, rather than on intelligence information."

That being said, the attorneys assured me, the BCIS center in Bloomington--which was so woefully understaffed last winter that people were lined up outside in sub-zero temperatures for hours--is doing a commendable job simply making sure we know who is already here. As for the war against Iraq and Islamic extremists (they're one and the same if you've been watching TV coverage of the "liberation"), it may be making people wary, but so far there is no evidence that local noncitizens have been harassed or detained as a result. Mainly, the process of tracking status is just time-consuming.

I couldn't help but ask again whether rounding up people for "special registration" after they've already entered the country doesn't put a chill in the air, essentially sending the signal that the words "immigrant" and "terrorist" are synonymous. After a few beats of silence, one lawyer asked me if he could speak off the record, meaning that I can use his quotes but not identify him by name. "Sure," I said. "This whole conversation can be anonymous, if that will make you more comfortable."

The mood abruptly shifted. Bureaucratic bungling, bad enough given how high the stakes, is just a symptom of the disease, they said--a convenient cover story when questions arise about agenda. "The whole system is in terrorism mode," another attorney says, after being promised anonymity. "The whole process is alienating the immigrant population.

"I mean, people are coming to this country expecting freedom, justice, and liberty and they are immediately realizing that there is no such thing as equal treatment. They learn that they can be ensnared in the system for things that are out of their control. And they learn that the system will turn its back on them when they are in most need of help. Every time they have to deal with immigration officials, they get this pit in their stomach--they feel like they're gambling."

"If Ashcroft had his way, and he may well get it, he would just close the borders," says another, who agrees Bush's war games have created a law-enforcement philosophy as racist as it is imprecise.

"The people from Somalia who live in this community are fearing for their lives. It's a witch hunt. And it's terrifying. Think about it: You don't know what they think they know, so how could you possibly be prepared to deal with them? How could you possibly feel safe?"

Most of the attorneys in the room have talked to reporters before, on the record. They are all U.S. citizens, educated in American law schools, with nothing apparent to hide. Yet they seem nearly as loath to speak openly as their clients. The idea of openly questioning the system in which they work seems to terrify them, especially the two attorneys in the room who were born in another country.

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