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An anti-immigrant hysteria to justify their "war on terror"
Victims of a witch-hunt

November 12, 2004 | Page 5

NICOLE COLSON reports on the hidden victims of Washington's war on Arab and Muslim immigrants.

"EACH DAY I get more desperate." Amina Silmi has good reason to be scared. In late March, the U.S. deported the 35-year-old to Venezuela--a country where she didn't know a single person.

Silmi, a Palestinian who was born in Venezuela, came to the U.S. 14 years ago on a temporary visa. She married twice and had three children. But because her husband was convicted of a crime and subsequently deported to the West Bank in 2000, Amina lost her immigration status, too--and the government ordered her back to Venezuela.

Amina was forced to make the heartbreaking decision to leave her three children, all of them U.S. citizens, with her sister in Ohio, rather than taking them to a country where they would be destitute. "I go to sleep thinking of my kids, and I wake up thinking of them," she told the Associated Press.

After searching for several days, Amina found a family whose oldest son once knew her deceased brother, and they offered her shelter. But that's little comfort as she wonders when--or if--she will see her children again.

Amina is one of many thousands of immigrants--both legal and undocumented--who are victims of America's draconian immigration laws. It's a system set up for abuse and cruelty. But since September 11, authorities have used their powers much more aggressively against anyone of Arab descent.

Of course, Washington will look the other way while immigrants provide cheap, exploitable labor. But the witch-hunt since September 11 is about scapegoating both legal and undocumented immigrants to whip up a hysteria that justifies the "war on terror."

Not a single immigrant rounded up after September 11 has been convicted of a crime related to terrorism, but the Feds have had no problems tarring immigrants with other so-called "crimes."

Like Ansar Mahmood, a 27-year-old legal resident who worked 13-hour shifts delivering pizza to send money back home to his family in Pakistan. In 1999, he was arrested after he was seen taking pictures of a water reservoir in his hometown in upstate New York. He was immediately cleared of any suspicion of terrorism, but when authorities discovered that he had co-signed an apartment lease for a Pakistani couple whose visas had expired, they railroaded him into accepting a plea of "harboring illegal aliens." He spent three years in jail--before being deported in September.

Now, there is reason to believe that Washington is preparing a new round of anti-immigrant attacks. According to the ACLU, in August, agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security conducted heavy-handed sweeps on immigrants in conjunction with police in several cities across Washington state. Officials claimed to be trying to track down specific individuals, but many of those caught up in the dragnet were simply bystanders.

According to the ACLU, authorities sometimes expanded their questioning to involve entire families and apartment complexes--and racially profiled immigrants in places like English as a Second Language classes and supermarkets. "[F]amilies are afraid to go grocery shopping or send their children to day care, and some are staying home from work," said the ACLU in a statement.

Meanwhile, prior to the first presidential debate in Arizona, hundreds of Muslims were questioned by FBI agents. And last month in Virginia, the FBI increased surveillance on mosques and interrogated Arabs and Muslims as part of the "Fall Threat Task Force" to supposedly minimize the threat of terrorism before the election. Under the guise of "voluntary" interviews, FBI agents reportedly grilled people with questions like: "Do you know anyone critical of the domestic war on terrorism?" and "Have you heard any anti-U.S. propaganda?"

As if this wasn't despicable enough, Congress is considering moving forward with the misnamed Fairness in Immigration Litigation Act, a bill that would weaken the judicial review process in immigration proceedings and make it more difficult for people fleeing persecution to gain asylum in the U.S.

This new crackdown has been overseen by Republicans, but make no mistake--the Democrats helped set the stage with the draconian 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Passed under the Clinton administration, the act allowed for immigrants convicted of even minor offenses (shoplifting, driving under the influence or driving without a license) to be deported. More than half a million immigrants have been deported under its provisions since.

With four more years of Bush in office, attacks like these will certainly continue. We have to make sure they don't go unchallenged--and that there aren't more victims like Amina Silmi and Ansar Mahmood.

They sent Edgar Chocoy to his death

IN THE richest nation on earth, you'd think the government could afford some compassion for the most vulnerable immigrants--children. You'd be wrong. Sixteen-year-old Edgar Chocoy is a tragic example.

In March, Edgar, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, begged a Denver immigration judge to let him stay in the U.S. As an infant, Edgar's mother left him with relatives in Guatemala so that she could find work in Los Angeles.

Like a lot of poor kids, Edgar didn't start school until age 9 or 10, and when he was 12, he joined a gang and began engaging in petty crimes. "They were the only friends I had, and I only knew them," he told the judge at his asylum hearing. "I thought they were the only family I had."

When he wanted out at age 14, the gang demanded payment. So Edgar fled to the U.S., joining his mother in Los Angeles. To survive, he ended up moving drugs from place to place for a gang in exchange for a place to sleep.

In 2002, Edgar was arrested for possession of a firearm and cocaine. Because of his age, the criminal courts were lenient. But immigration officials showed no mercy, throwing the teenager into a Colorado detention camp and preparing to deport him.

Edgar begged not to be sent back, knowing he would be a target for his former gang. "I am certain that if I had stayed in Guatemala, the members of the gang...would have killed me," he wrote in an affidavit. "I have seen them beat people up with baseball bats and rocks and shoot at them. I know they kill people. I know they torture people with rocks and baseball bats. I know that if I am returned to Guatemala, I will be tortured by them. I know that they will kill me if I am returned to Guatemala."

Counselors wrote letters on behalf of Edgar, and an aunt in Virginia told the court that he could come and live with her--an offer that was originally approved by the federal Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. Until, that is, the Department of Homeland Security stepped in to "recommend" that he not be allowed to stay in the U.S.

In the end, the judge ignored Edgar's pleas and sent the teen back. It was a death sentence.

Edgar was gunned down 17 days after he arrived. By the time his family was informed of his death, he had already been buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery for the homeless.

Anyone thinking that immigration officials might show an ounce of sympathy for the child they essentially condemned to death would be mistaken. "There is a real likelihood that the same fate would have befallen him if he was allowed to stay here," sniffed ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice.

But as Kim Salinas, the lawyer who represented Edgar, told the Associated Press, he "was sent to die by our immigration system, which condemned him for his past and failed him in every way possible."

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