Homeland Insecurity

While most Americans celebrated the holiday season with their families, Champaign-Urbana’s residents from the Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia spent those same days under stress. Rather than anticipating warm reunions, they feared imminent separation from their loved ones by the Immigration and Naturalization Service under provisions of the Homeland Security Act.

It’s always been hard being an immigrant to the U.S., even though it’s also always been a great opportunity. Even legal immigrants with work permits and all their papers in order experience an extraordinary level of hassles and red tape, as they try to negotiate their way between multiple bureaucracies and often conflicting rules. Since Sept.11, 2001, it’s become de rigueur to cast a suspicious eye on foreigners. Now a new program, called the INS Special Registration has been put into motion, requiring the photographing, fingerprinting, and much closer monitoring of all immigrants; including examination of their credit/debit card records. But in the panic over the potential for terrorist attacks on United States, a panic driven by repeated media reports of bad things that are just about to happen, the new law is having its first, most intense effects on visitors and immigrants from countries and regions identified as predominantly Muslim.

The Special Registration asks men over the age of 16 who are citizens of selected countries and without green cards or permanent resident status to report to their regional INS centers. For international residents of Champaign-Urbana, that means a trip to Chicago and waiting in long lines. Here they will have their immigration status checked and be photographed, fingerprinted, and interrogated. According to immigration lawyers registrants are asked questions “under oath.” A false statement under oath is a serious violation. The INS agent “records” the answers. The officer will see travel documents, including a passport; any other government-issued identification; proof of residence, and may also ask to see leases or proof of titles; proof of school matriculation; proof of employment and proof of insurance. He or she may ask many other, unrelated questions, including questions about religious affilitiations. Around the country, minor violations of immigration law have resulted in severe penalties, including arrest, detention without counsel, and even deportation. Immigrants who through fear or ignorance fail to show up for the special registration are in very serious trouble. In these uncertain situations, some immigration lawyers are having a heyday, charging clients $10,000 or more for making representations to the INS.

Civil Rights and immigration activists nationally are denouncing the special registration as discriminatory, since it profiles people based on their perceived religion, ethnicity, or national origin. The INS denies this, but the Champaign-Urbana international community is experiencing a high level of collective anxiety because of the number of foreign-born University of Illinois faculty, academic professionals, graduate, and undergraduate students from these regions. In the fall semester, the University of Illinois alone hosted about 4,287 foreign students from 114 countries. At least several hundred faculty and academic workers here are foreign-born.

Special Registration is a rolling process. After the December 16, 2002 call-in, which targeted men from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, the INS set a date of January 10, 2003 for the registration of men from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Pakistani and Saudi Arabian men must report by February 21, 2003. To add to the confusion, the INS continues to amend its lists of suspect countries. For some reason Armenia was included in the February group, and then dropped. Other countries including Kuwait and Indonesia are being added to the call-in registration lists as we go to press.

After December 16, tension increased as news spread of blanket detentions and arrests at INS centers, particularly in Southern California. It was reported that the INS processing center in Los Angeles ran out of plastic handcuffs. The news that a 16-year old boy on derivative status (that is, attached to an adult’s residence permit) was taken into custody by INS at Los Angeles along with 700 other “aliens” has sent shockwaves among the local international academic body and throughout the country. In Colorado, seven university students were jailed for carrying lighter than permissible course loads. In New York, some legal immigrants have been deported for working seven hours a week over their allowed limit. A foreign student was detained for defaulting on a $2000 tuition loan. None of these legal immigrants were alleged to have committed any other offense.

It’s not just a question of arbitrary arrest or deportation, bad as that is. While the INS is reorganizing under the newly created Homeland Security Department, it is also taking time to update its databases, and so is delaying the processing of already filed cases for adjustment of status and other immigration-related applications. The result is that many people in the country legally are “running out of status” or “falling out of compliance,” and thus falling afoul of the INS for reasons beyond their control. It doesn’t help foreign faculty and students to feel secure when they hear that the FBI and INS special agents are visiting their colleagues. On January 28, 2003 The Dawn (Pakistan) reported FBI Director Robert Mueller has ordered the agency’s fifty-six field offices to develop a demographic profile of their localities. This includes counting the mosques in their area.

Champaign residents have always wondered why the small city in the middle of cornfields has an FBI office. It’s probably been there since Vietnam War protests brought the National Guard onto the quadrangle. But now we have an idea what its new uses are. Universities draw heavily on foreign-born talent, and research projects are increasingly internationalized. But the FBI office may soon be superfluous. Another new program since requires American universities to take over the job of collecting immigration information on foreign students, monitoring and enforcing their status. Essentially, university administrations are becoming unpaid arms of the INS. At the same time, the University of Illinois is being asked to “voluntarily” collect and provide information to the FBI on its foreign student body. How long, students and faculty wonder, before it’s not “voluntary”?

At the University of Illinois, foreign-born faculty members report tension among them so intense that it is likely to affect academic and research morale and have detrimental effects on many of the University’s research and teaching programs. In fact, the heads of the National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences have complained to the Bush administration about the special registration’s effects on their national programs.

Currently, Pakistanis applying for visas to attend graduate school in the United States are being rejected at a rate of 90 percent. Faculty of all nationalities are worried by a drop in foreign student enrollment from the Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan at the UIUC; they’re concerned to hear colleagues abroad say they would not think of visiting or applying for a job at an American university under such circumstances. A number of UIUC teachers and researchers have had to cancel pre-scheduled home country visits and overseas research presentations. Some foreign graduate students at the threshold of completing their masters and doctoral thesis find themselves worried whether they can complete their work. And more personal level, funerals and weddings in home countries are going unattended. . At the University of Illinois, most of the international faculty and graduate students live with their loved ones and families, so the new registration policy is also spreading pain to parents, spouses and school-age children. Some Chinese students who went home for the Christmas break remain stuck there, unable to return to their work, friends and family.

A small group of faculty and the Antiwar Antiracism Effort (AWARE) have petitioned Chancellor Nancy Cantor, university administrators and local congressional leaders to recognize the gravity of the situation, and the demoralizing effect it is having on the local international community. They also argue that the call in registration process is likely to reinforce the negative image of the U.S. of suppressing minorities, particularly those from Muslim countries regardless of their U.S citizenship, permanent or temporary resident status. As evidence, they present the flight of thousands of Pakistanis from the United States to Canada, people in fear of deportation or racist retaliation.

Is all this an “unintended consequence” of heightened security? Or is it simply another way to intimidate vulnerable people, especially people who might see things differently or have an alternative perspective to add to the public debate on an even wider war in the Middle East? What crafty terrorist would show up at an INS processing center to be photographed, fingerprinted, and interrogated? Why does John Ashcroft think women can’t be terrorists? If the INS really wanted to bring uncontrolled immigrants to heel, why not call in the Irish? Because Boston, New York and San Francisco would be paralyzed within a day.

AWARE and Citizens Academics for Fair Immigration Laws (CAFIL) have demanded that the University administration strenuously protest the new registration regulations to the Bush administration and urge the rollback or at least the slowing down of the rolling call-in process. Senators Edward Kennedy, Russ Feingold and Congressman John Conyers have sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft demanding a complete halt to registration and a review of the law. So far, the University of Illinois administration has held sympathetic meetings with concerned faculty, but there has been no apparent progress on rollback of the law at the federal level. For now, some of Champaign-Urbana’s most valuable community members are living with the heightened insecurity created by our now even more irrational immigration laws.

OLIVE LOWELL lives in Pesotum, Il. She can be reached at: lowell@counterpunch.org.