The Catalyst: Special Registration

In each of these regions of the country, regardless of the character of the population, the government’s “special registration” program formed the key catalyst for a heightened degree of mobilization. When this program was authorized, it attracted very little attention, including among the affected constituencies. When it began to be implemented (in December 2002), however, it sparked an intense wave of community opposition and negative publicity.

The reasons for this are not difficult to understand: All but one of the countries named for the first round of registration were Middle Eastern or predominantly Muslim countries, leading immigrants from those countries to feel, quite justifiably, that they were being used as sacrificial lambs for the US government’s deliberate instigation of war fever, with a strong focus on the stigmatization and demonization of Arab and Muslim immigrants, often in quasi-religious terms.

Although it has been commented on only infrequently, the special registration program was also an explicitly gendered one, requiring only men from the targeted communities to register with the government. The clear implication is that males are the principal threat to national security – a suggestion that only underlines the discriminatory and anti-democratic nature of this program.

In its initial stages, the program was grotesquely mismanaged, leading to confusing and contradictory instructions by immigration authorities, as well as overloads that they were entirely unprepared for. Worse, this program essentially penalized immigrants for attempting to play by the rules. It separated thousands of families and plunged thousands of others into uncertainty by issuing deportation orders. In addition, the targeting and stigmatization of immigrants, particularly Muslim and Arab immigrants, has led to a notable increase in hate speech, hate violence, and open displays of racism and religious intolerance by media and political figures.

In response, ethnic communities, faith communities, legal advocates, and others mobilized across the country, with special registration “clinics,” monitoring programs, accompaniment programs, and displays of interfaith solidarity and community support. By the time these interviews were conducted, in the spring and summer of 2003, the initial crisis phase was over, and our interviews offered community activists a welcome opportunity to reflect on this experience and what types of changes it had brought forth at the community level. New programs, new organizations, and new approaches were beginning to settle in for the longer haul – or to fall by the wayside.

Although Special Registration (known formally as NSEERS, or the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System) has been inactive for some years, at this writing it remains on the books. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has rejected numerous requests from advocates as well as members of the US Senate, including Sens. Kennedy, Durbin and Feingold, to formally terminate the program. A recent letter from DHS stated that the decision to apply NSEERS to particular nationalities is based on “national security considerations,” suggesting that NSEERS has been helpful, and noting that it would be “premature” to determine at this juncture the future of the program. As noted below, many of the functions of this program have been incorporated into a federal program known as US-VISIT.

Civic Participation

The most obvious response to such attacks on civil liberties and civil rights, and the one that has been most extensively commented on in the media (by detractors as well as admirers), is the increase in every form of civic participation among Muslim and Arab immigrant communities, including voter registration drives among those who are eligible, increased emphasis on legislative advocacy, and more pro-active and visible efforts to counter discrimination, racial harassment, and religious intolerance. Groups like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the American Muslim Society and the like have emerged as mainstream voices advocating for their constituencies.

In one way or another, each of these groups is articulating a uniquely “American” vision of Islam or ethnic identity, a new synthesis of ideas about justice, democratic rights, and faith blending the experiences and culture of their countries of origin with their adopted country. This development has forged new ties of interfaith and inter-ethnic solidarity — and has also evoked an ugly backlash, from conservative Christian and Jewish voices as well as rightwing tendencies not framed in terms of any faith tradition, warning of the “danger” of the increasing power of Muslims as a potential voting bloc.

When Detention Comes Home

Some of the most piercing stories, not surprisingly, came from the communities in and around Brooklyn that have been devastated by the crisis of detention and deportation. Emergent grassroots groups, like Families for Freedom or the Coney Island Avenue Project, told stories of creative and daring efforts to establish and maintain contact with people held incommunicado inside the web of detention centers in North Jersey’s Hudson, Bergen, and Passaic county jails.

Members of such groups often became involved when family members, neighbors, or relatives were caught up in the detention juggernaut. They work closely with more traditional advocacy groups (our interviews in this area also included a mosque representative from Teaneck, ACLU immigrants’ rights staff from Newark, the legal services coordinator for the Arab American Family Support Center in Brooklyn, and others). Like all groups that operate very close to the grassroots, their finances and staffing are precarious, when they exist at all. Their passion, ingenuity, and commitment, however, are profound.