Neighbors or Enemies? > In a World at War

New York and New Jersey

Joanna Habib

Print this interview

Former Legal Director, Arab American Family Support Center

At root, it’s about racial profiling — about immigrants and how they’re treated. Noncitizens have limited [legal] remedies, it’s not so much because of 9/11.

It’s a battle to convince people that immigrants are not the enemy. We’re battling the three-second attention span and short-term memory. We try to change attitudes, for example with our press conference – but it’s almost easier to go to court.

“Illegal alien” – it sounds subhuman, not even human. I still think that if you could sit down with people, they would come around. People say things like “they should follow the law.” People worry about open borders. Immigrants are seen as threatening.

At some point you have to accept that people are now Americans.

The INS needed to change, but what’s happening now is not an improvement. What is going to make us safe? I don’t think this will. We need to look at ourselves first. None of this happened overnight or in a vacuum. Where does US aid go, and how does it affect people?

Trying to prevent tragedies like 9/11 needs to be a constant, a way of life. We need smarter enforcement. People should pay more attention to each other.

Amazing coalitions happened after 9/11 — here, in San Francisco, in Boston. Groups that didn’t have a common goal before came together in new ways. Collaboration was harder to see before special registration – now it’s everywhere. Registration was different because the impact was felt immediately. The detentions in LA were such an immediate thing.

The response began with 9/11 and special registration created a new level of interaction. I don’t know that it has extended to the grassroots; on the ground communities are mostly still separate. Maybe within mosques, where Pakistanis and Arabs cross boundaries.

If there is another attack, things will get much worse. More arrests, more stop and frisk, more referrals to immigration. We are looking for funds to help people naturalize or become permanent residents – we need to do a lot more in that field.

I don’t know where things are going, but people are resilient. Maybe something good will come of this in the end.