Race, Action, Culture: Special registration; prophecy and protest: Bangladeshis added to fated list

Special registration; prophecy and protest: Bangladeshis added to fated list – Enemies of the State

Rinku Sen

Reports from three immigrant communities targeted by the nationwide call to turn themselves in.

While news of U.S. military attacks abroad led the front pages, on the less-flashy domestic front the “war on terror” has been vastly accelerated since June 2002 when Attorney General John Ashcroft implemented the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). NSEERS requirements for foreign visitors have been on the books since the McCarthy era, but are being enforced for the first time a half-century later with Ashcroft’s “voluntary” program.

The official explanation is the U.S. will be better equipped to combat the threat of terror if it has a registry of potential terrorists from countries that purportedly harbor them. In practice, the program has ordered all male nationals (over the age of 16) from 24 Muslim countries and North Korea to submit to photographing and fingerprinting at federal immigration facilities.

In addition, more than 100 people were arrested, denied access to attorneys, and secretly detained in California during the first round of registrations, according to the ACLU. Many of them had pending applications for extended stays or permanent residency. Rather than face this demeaning and discriminatory procedure, many immigrants from the countries targeted on this list have chosen to leave. Human rights and civil liberties groups have called the program a form of racial profiling.

In a December 23, 2002, letter to Ashcroft, Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) urged the administration to suspend the special registration program, because the “program appears to be a component of a second wave of roundups and detentions of Arab and Muslim males disguised as a perfunctory registration requirement.

To date, Ashcroft appears devoted to NSEERS in spite of public criticism. In an MSNBC online chat, the transcript of which was posted on the Department of Justice homepage, Ashcroft wrote: “We haven’t done a good job of not only monitoring people who come in but perhaps more importantly, making sure that what they were doing while they were here was not contrary to the interests of this country.

The following three firsthand accounts offer a glimpse into communities that have been directly targeted by the special registration program.

A mir Hafeez is no prophet, but he made one prediction that came true. Realizing that his options for staying in the United States were running out, Hafeez boarded a flight from the United States to Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city, last year.

“If I don’t leave now, they will find me and force me to leave, or put me in detention,” Hafeez (who requested that his name be changed for this article) said in a September 2002 interview.

Hafeez, who came to the United States on a student visa in the early 1990s and was unable to regain legal status when it expired; he fir too well the government’s profile of young Muslim men who commit terrorism. Just as he predicted, Bangladeshis have become targets of the search for potential terrorists.

On January 15, the INS added Bangladesh to the list of countries whose nationals must turn themselves in for photographing and fingerprinting in the “special registration” program. Bangladeshis in New York are scrambling to comply with an order that may affect 30 to 45 percent of their community, according to the Bangladeshi Consul General and other community leaders. The percentage varies with respect to the number of undocumented immigrants

Bangladeshis are the seventh largest Asian group and one of the fastest growing immigrant communities in New York City, according to the 2000 Census. The Census reported approximately 30,000 visa holders, 85,000 permanent residents, and an estimated 80,000 undocumented immigrants.

Most Bangladeshis express surprise at their addition to the special registration list.

“We never expected to be included in the list. We are a peace-loving people and we have been a partner to the U.S.A. in the fight against global terrorism,” said Rafiq Ahmed Khan, the Bangladeshi Consul General at its New York embassy.

Both Khan and Bangladesh’s foreign minister have unsuccessfully demanded that Bangladesh be taken off the list. (Only one country, Armenia, has been removed from the list once it had been put on it.) Khan hired five attorneys to give legal advice and negotiated a one-month extension to the deadline.

Most undocumented Bangladeshis entered the country legally but lost their status as their temporary visas expired. While returning is a foreseeable option for single men like Hafeez, who were raised in Bangladesh, others who have overstayed visas and have children who are U.S. citizens have decided to take their chances by staying. After a decade or so in the U.S., these fathers say they would find repatriation difficult. Others are concerned that teenagers who have spent most of their lives in the U.S. will not be able to adjust after being deported.

“The biggest group that will be affected are young kids, who came when they were seven or eight years old, don’t have any papers, and are now in high school. They have no tie to Bangladesh,” said Chowdhury Hassan, editor of Desh Bangla, a Bengali newspaper that publishes editions in New York and Atlanta.

Since the removal of Bangladesh from the list is unlikely, the community is exploring other policy options. Some want amnesty for various sorts of undocumented Bangladeshis: those with children here, those who have lived here for more than five years, or those with no criminal records. Under these proposed forms of amnesty, the undocumented would have a guarantee against deportation.

“If some kind of amnesty is there, everybody will go for registration. The way they are doing it now, only 50 percent will go,” said Fakhrul Alam, general secretary of the Bangladesh Society of New York. But an amnesty campaign will be difficult to win, and other community advocates think it will be easier to end special registration entirely. Until amnesty is a possibility, Alam supports ending the registration program.

However, Khan, the Consul General, does not call for ending the program. “That is up to the U.S. government,” said Khan. “We have every respect for the law of the land and we appreciate the concern for security. We just try to impress upon them that Bangladesh is a peace-loving country so that our people don’t suffer.” Khan noted that the embassy only wants Bangladeshis to be taken off the list, be given some assurance of an amnesty option, or, at the very least, be allowed to bring their attorneys when they register.

Although Bangladeshis are pleased with Khan’s efforts, few feel that diplomacy will suffice. Moinuddin Naser, co-editor of the Weekly Bang/a Patrika and president of the Bangladesh Society for Human Rights said, “They are providing legal support just for those who will go for the registration. They are not giving any advice about how to avoid the notice to appear, arrest, deportation.”

These events have radicalized Bangladeshis, and some are calling for more militant approaches. In a demonstration against special registration policy on February 21, Bangladeshis joined other South Asian, Arab, and Middle Eastern organizations. Two hundred and fifty people demanded an end to the program while at least as many stood in line to handle immigration business.

“If anything happens, it will happen for everyone, not for the Bengali community individually,” said Naser, of the human rights group.

“Before we were not so alarmed. Being added to the list got us all more nervous, said Chaman Begum, while holding a picket sign outside the federal immigration office. It was her first time attending a demonstration. Begum objects to the program as a form of race discrimination and as a concerted effort to get rid of undocumented immigrants.

“They can do special registration, but they should do it for everybody. I think they are doing this so that many people will go back home,” she said.

But not all Bangladeshis are so worried.

“We are living in this country, we should respect their law. If someone is doing something in the name of religion, they must look for those people,” said Imam Mohammed Qayyoom, head of the Elmhurst Islamic Center in Queens. Qayyoom does not think those who register will be treated badly. “I don’t believe the government will do things very roughly or unfairly. The police are here many days protecting our mosques,” he said.

Naser perceives such attitudes as a form of denial and self-protection. “They think that if they say anything negatively against the U.S., law enforcement may take it negatively. But the people who come to us, they are afraid,” said Naser.

Despite the panic, the community’s responses reflect a reluctant trudge toward the worst imaginable possibility: that special registration will lead to forced removal and detention like that imposed on Japanese Americans during World War II.

“They are using this program to make lists of people, just like they did in the ’40,” said Neena James, from South Asians Against Police Brutality, which turned our 20 people to the February 21 demonstration. “How much more evidence do people need?”

Rinku Sen is the publisher of ColorLines.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Color Lines Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group