Building on New Foundations > Standing Up, Reaching Out

New York and New Jersey

Parastou Hassouri

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Former Immigrant Rights Organizer, ACLU of New Jersey

The ACLU of New Jersey launched its program on immigrants rights in January 2003. Through the end of April, our main focus was on special registration; now we’re looking at other issues as well.

We’ve done a lot of community education, reaching out to mosques. Our goal is to make ACLU known to these communities. Some immigrant communities don’t see the ACLU as an organization to turn to. We are new to Muslim and Middle Eastern communities. Also, we don’t have the capacity to provide legal services to individuals. We can only litigate so much, usually constitutional issues.

Most detainees and others affected by discrimination need individual legal services. That’s why the Human Rights Education and Law Project (HELP) was formed by Muslim leaders after 9/11.

We’ve also put out a lot of publicity on these issues for non-immigrant communities. A lot of people are really concerned about Patriot Act. I always use the opportunity to slip in work on immigrant rights, how the brunt of attacks on civil liberties has been borne by immigrant communities.

Since 9/11 most government actions do not even use the Patriot Act, most are through executive orders. Ultimately what is needed is immigration reform, which won’t come about until people see the bigger picture – post-9/11 intensification of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Another big concern for ACLU is increasing cooperation between local law-enforcement and federal agencies. We’re trying to help communities be more aware of why this is a bad idea, because of the potential for racial profiling. We just settled a major  suit with the state of New Jersey challenging traffic stops by police targeting African American drivers.

Racial profiling is ineffective as an investigation technique. The war on drugs, the war on terror – these are open-ended, undefined, unending wars that have the effects of keeping certain communities down.

ACLU’s membership is predominantly older, white, middle to upper middle class people  – especially people who remember the government abuses of the 1960s and 1970s. In that liberal constituency, there is a lot of understanding that Middle Eastern and Muslim communities are at the leading edge of current attacks on civil liberties, so there is support for our efforts to reach out.

We do have some Muslim and Hispanic members. Arab Americans on our board are actively trying to recruit in their community. The current executive director is really committed to increasing diversity on our board, because only then can we speak to communities.

Waheed Khalid is very active on these issues. At a press conference on special registration just after I started, he made a point of inviting someone from the Bergen County Council of Churches. He works in interfaith circles – but he’s one of a handful in the entire state who is active on human rights issues..

There is a large Arab community in Jersey City, with many recent immigrants. We held a special registration clinic in Jersey City. Many of those who arrived had a year or two in the country and did not speak English very well. Paterson and Jersey City are two of the largest Arab communities. At the other end of the spectrum is the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, a large, well-established mosque, with many US citizen members. One of their members is one of the few active Arab Americans.

Everyone agrees about the importance for the larger American public not to see Muslims as different people who have nothing in common with them. The ACLU has made some definite progress in relationship building. I try to take the extra step, but it takes a lot of time to cultivate relationships. And every time you think there’s been some progress, something else breaks out in the news and people in the Muslim and Arab communities rethink getting involved.

The legal framework for all the arrests and detentions was all in place after 1996. Like deporting people and barring them for life for minor, nonviolent first offenses. Before 9/11, there was some movement toward reform, because people were seeing such draconian cases.

Building a coalition for change depends on building support for immigration reform. We make some connections – my speaking helps people think more critically about the conflation of immigration and national security. Our current immigration laws are completely out of synch with reality. I would love to see proportionality and humanity brought back into immigration law.

The Iranian community is not so large in New Jersey. In the New York metropolitan region, including Long Island, there are about 30,000 Iranians. In any event, many Iranians are very secular. Professional and cultural organizations are more active than Muslim organizations – like the Iranian American bar association or medical association.

When we go to mosques, people ask all kinds of questions. As Muslims they feel like they are under government scrutiny.  At one mosque a Pakistani guy came up to me, he said he had lived in the US for 35 years without any problem. After 9/11 Fleet Bank closed his account.