9/11: How the War on Terror Became the War on Immigrants

Feature image by vectorportal

As a pseudo-foreigner in this country, the child of immigrant parents, the anniversary of the September 11th attacks means something different to me.

As an American, I still felt the complete horror and sense of helplessness in the face of the attacks that the rest of the country did. I still felt the same awe that we were able to come together in the aftermath. Along with that, however, I also began to feel a mounting fear that other Americans couldn’t understand.

In the wake of 9/11, the focus of immigration shifted from naturalization to criminalization and deportation. The power to enforce immigration was transferred from the Department of Justice and Immigration and Naturalization Services to the Department of Homeland Security under three offices: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

There are few of us from immigrant backgrounds who see the acronyms USCIS or ICE and don’t feel personally threatened in a vague and indefinable way—even for those of us who are citizens. What we are feeling is the heavy realization that since 9/11, these organizations have the power to tear our worlds apart, all in the name of “security.”

Because the terrorists had been in the country on student or tourist visas, all immigrants were recast as potential threats. Because 19 men had hatred in their hearts 10 years ago, countless of us have been treated with hatred ever since. The very color of our skin, our religion, or our national origin was proof that we were “un-American,” and racial profiling became a sanctioned norm.  Furthermore, immigration law was abused in order to investigate, detain, prosecute, and deport “suspects” because it affords individuals fewer rights and protections than criminal law does.

Immediately after 9/11, the raids and deportations began in Muslim immigrant communities. The National Security Entry/Exit Registration System required all non-citizen males over the age of 16 from 25 ‘suspect’ countries, namely those in the Middle East, to register as part of anti-terrorist measures. This has been retroactively called S.B.1070 for Muslims. In July of 2003, 13,000 of the almost 83,000 men who registered faced deportation proceedings, only 11 of which could be linked to terrorist groups. The Center for Human Rights and Global Justice along with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund recently put out a report detailing other abuses.

While we are honoring the fallen of 9/11 and taking stock in how we have rebuilt, let’s take some time to think about who else has been affected by the disaster.

Counter-terrorism efforts have used the vulnerability of immigration status to inflict human rights abuses. The non-citizen status of many of those detained at Guantanamo Bay was used as a reason to keep them from being afforded Constitutional rights until a Supreme Court ruling. The Hutto Facility imprisoned children in inhumane conditions until an ACLU lawsuit. Later, a supervisor at the Hutto Facility was charged with sexually abusing detainees. Through “Secure Communities,” immigrants coming into contact with law enforcement—either from minor incidents or even through reporting domestic violence—were subject to deportation proceedings and removal. A bill has been proposed to reverse the Supreme Court ruling that protects non-citizens to detain undocumented immigrants indefinitely. Private companies are profiting from creating detention centers, and Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio openly calls his Tent City jail a “concentration camp.”

This year we also took a few small steps towards no longer defining freedom in terms of who we jail. “SB1070 for Muslims” was discontinued. President Obama called for reprioritizing deportations to make sure that “low priority’ immigrants” were not affected. Cook County passed an ordinance against cooperating with ICE detainers that would have had them hold inmates up to two days past legal necessity, regardless of charges or outcome.

While all the memorials are lovely, actions speak louder than words. I hope that in a few years time we can live in a country where there will be more transparency and regulation of how immigrants are treated, and the memory of those who died in the 9/11 attacks won’t be used to justify lawlessness, cruelty, and abuse. Instead, their memories can stand as a testament to overcoming the worst in our human nature.