Building on New Foundations > Standing Up, Reaching Out

New York and New Jersey

Joanna Habib

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Former Legal Director, Arab American Family Support Center

We’ve seen at least 700 people since the beginning of Special Registration. We’ve had clients from Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria; lots of Egyptians – they are probably the largest group – as well as Palestinians from Jordan or Lebanon. Technically Palestinians don’t need to register, but if their travel documents are from other counties, then they do have to.

There were a dozen young Bahrainis, I don’t know if they knew each other. All have potential asylum claims. We help Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis – we can’t offer help in their mother tongue, but we’ll help whoever we can in English.

The legal clinic is a joint project of the New York Immigration Coalition, Lutheran Family Services (their attorney comes to the clinic every Friday morning), and the New York Bar Association. Our staff helps with translation. I came a year ago as an intern, in my last year of law school.

We didn’t know what this was going to be like. There are so many cases, no one can take them all.  Instead of putting people into camps, they just send them back – it’s easier and cheaper.

The media always focuses on Muslims, but the policy is about what country you’re from. People come in and tell us, I’m Christian, do I still have to register? It doesn’t matter.

Initially people thought that if they complied with the law, something good would come of it. People came to register in the middle of winter. They stood for two or three hours outside immigration, like cattle. Then they went through interrogation – and the result is that they were ordered to see a judge and be put in deportation proceedings.

I saw such painful scenes. The worst are the men with families in Yemen, living on what they send back. They will live on $50 a week if they can send $50 back. People asked me, “How will I keep my family? There is nothing there.”  People came in and asked, should I divorce my wife in Yemen and marry an American? It is so hard to explain to people that they have no real options …

People cry in my office, it’s emotional stuff. We went with people to register. There were no interpreters on the third floor at the main intake. Wives were calling us and saying, “don’t let my husband go – watch over him,” because they heard about what happened in LA. We were there until 7:00 a.m. the next morning on the 10th floor, while they were waiting for a call from Washington to see if they should detain people. Finally the call came, saying “no, let them go and make an appointment to come back if they can’t finish.”

People are scared. If they face deportation proceedings, they don’t know what will happen. Those who are not in proceedings are wondering where it is safe. People are not calling the police because they’re scared they will be turned into immigration; it’s against city policy but the city has not stated police will not ask people about their immigration status.

People come in feeling a wrong has been done to them. Their first instinct is to look for a lawyer. People are paying a lot for false information.

We try to support families of detainees and deportees – we don’t have money; we can only help them figure out what’s next. We offer referrals to whatever resources are available, and try to ensure that their family member has an attorney, so they can post bond and get them out of jail. If the husband is deported, sometimes entire families are returning together; in other cases the extended family steps in, and an uncle or someone will help the family.

Beyond that we work with other organizations to take on the systemic issues. Many groups are focusing on privacy, trying to fight all the sharing of information. After every clinic we fill out a survey, created by national organizations, mainly immigrant rights organizations; they are compiling information to identify possibilities for litigation.

We’re also working with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, to document the existence of discrimination. People don’t report it – who would they report it to? We translated and circulated the surveys, we’ll see what it leads to.

Before 9/11, we were a smaller organization with no legal program. I don’t see a clear end to this. Until there’s a change in government, we’re trapped.

It’s a very sad time. People came here for a better life, to find more opportunities, both economic and political. Now the fabric of life is thinning out. People are leaving from their mosques and churches. I’m very concerned also for the children who are being uprooted into a different environment, one that is much harder for children.