We’ve Been Here Before: America’s Disappeared and the Targeting of Muslim Immigrants

Just as Argentina’s desaparecidos evidenced bodies forever lost in unknown locations, left at the bottom of Río de la Plata where people were thrown alive from airplanes or disposed of in mass graves in and around city centres such as Buenos Aires, 9/11 ushered in a new era of disappeared bodies where of the 2,973 who lost their lives on this day, 2,753 were killed in and around the World Trade Center.  Of these victims, only 293 bodies were found intact with 1,640 bodies or partial bodies able to be identified. This means that 1,113 victims were completely unidentified as the families of the dead have no physical trace of the lives lost.  (The actual numbers are skewed here as the official number was changed two years after 9/11 to incorporate those who died as a result of exposure to dust from the site or who went missing.)  As part of the process of identification, a retracing of these missing bodies necessarily assumes their deaths.  Yet, without the somatic remnants, these individuals deaths remain in a sort of limbo such that the identifying those killed has come to mean a rehashing of histories, a teasing lies from truths, and a negotiating the masses in the struggle to incorporate a democratic voice for properly locating both the whereabouts and the facts surrounding the events of 9/11, as well as maintaining access to the memory of these lost lives.  This last often involves a cultural dialogue between the critique of official history and collective memories. As the dead subject can no longer speak, storytelling and performance becomes the root of social justice transposed from the body of the disappeared to those family and friends who speak for them of the crime in clear and loud tones.  The status of being taken away, the somatic absence, creates an aporetic space where many other stories are obfuscated by the official narrative of 9/11.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, New York City witnessed the emergence of popular expressions of trauma and grief.  Initially, from the thousands of fliers posted throughout the city of people containing the messages of those who were searching for loved ones on city street corners and hospital emergency wings. These sites, such as the entry to Beth Israel Hospital in lower Manhattan, became iconic spaces for more official remembrances of the dead, of the event of 9/11, and of the representation of collective mourning.  Soon, more formal representations such as graffiti and murals on fire station doors and walls took over the more ad hoc piles of flowers and photos which, over the months, eventually disappeared.  And as the excavation at the site of the World Trade Center advanced, pieces of the buildings themselves became part of a more permanent series of public memorials such as “The Sphere” by Franz Koenig, a sculpture that once stood in the middle of Austin J. Tobin Plaza, the area between the World Trade Center towers and eventually moved to Battery Park just a few blocks away from ground zero.  At the site of reconstruction of the new tower were semi-permanent monuments to the dead, a historiography of the original site, a chronicling of the events of 9/11, and even metallic “found objects” left in the form of a crucifix at the construction site.

In the months following this tragedy, the graffiti turned into official, permanent plaques as firefighters were iconised and public art slowly began to emerge.  On the corner of Greenwich and Seventh Avenues was an empty lot whose fence served as a sort of pop-up gallery space for public art to surface as this ad hoc placement of individual, hand-crafted tiles in memoriam soon became known as the Greenwich Village Tile Memorial (now moved to a public library on Sixth Avenue).  And soon after the emergence of public artworks dotted the city, professional artists were commissioned to memorialise 9/11, such as the Metropolitan Transport Authority’s commissioning of Daniel Kohn’s “Seen from Above,” installed in Grand Central Terminal in 2002.  This memorial offered the spectator a silent space for contemplation about 9/11, depicting murals of panoramas from the World Trade Center site towards New Jersey, northern Manhattan and then Brooklyn.   Another memorial created by the collective ArtAid resides in the tunnels of the Union Square subway station, is slowly fading away, but is still a strongly defended public sculpture.  Even performance played into the recuperation of memory and the healing from trauma as September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a collective of families of the victims of 9/11, sponsored what they call a “Stonewalk” where in 2004 this organisation pushed a large tombstone, from Boston to New York, to commemorate the loss of lives.  As one of the founders of Peaceful Tomorrow, Colleen Kelly, told me, its significance is “to highlight the civilian deaths that occur in war that often get pushed aside and get a renamed “collateral damage” or whatever, you know, these euphemisms.”

Yet these acts and artefacts of remembrance only represent one facet of the official history of 9/11.  For what is left out of this rendering are the 14,000 Muslim men disappeared in the aftermath of 9/11 resulting largely from Special Registration, officially known as National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS).  Special Registration presumed the necessity of mass surveillance and nationwide propaganda that was commonplace in the years following 9/11 and which largely continue to this day.  Just over a year after September 11, 2001 the Metropolitan Transport Authority of New York City ran the series of ads, “If you see something, say something,” forewarning subway commuters of abandoned bags or rucksacks left under subway platform or passenger seats.  The subtitle could not have directed a clearer message to New Yorkers: “Be suspicious…” where the object of suspicion was left ambiguous, if not bulky and dark.  This public campaign was launched just a few months before the United States’ government initiated Special Registration, a process which required Muslim male immigrants over the age of 16 to register with Homeland Security (the agency created in the aftermath of 9/11 which replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Services).

It should be noted that Special Registration was made possible specifically because of two of Clinton’s 1996 laws, Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) which, according to Human Rights Watch “eliminated key defences against deportation and subjected many more immigrants, including legal permanent residents, to detention and deportation” along with the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).  Essentially these immigration reforms intensified collateral civil penalties to non-citizens while focussing governmental efforts on specifically Muslim communities within the United States.  As Marc Krupanski, Program Officer at the Open Society Foundation’s Center for Constitutional Rights, tells me:

…In 1996 the Clinton administration passed a legal immigration reform, IIRIRA. Those sets of laws really increase the space of what is deportable and what [requires] mandatory detention,  It created aggravated felony for immigration offenses, and it’s just really created what we see and call a two-tiered system and it’s an Apartheid state for immigrants in the United States. Immigrants are entirely seen as second class and have second-class rights vis-à-vis citizens…There’s the example we always use that you have a non-citizen immigrant who gets charged with driving while drunk. He goes to court and doesn’t serve any time, pleads guilty, gets six months probation. You have a citizen who has that same charge and also has a drug charge, a narcotics charge of cocaine. The person gets away scot-free—you know, the charges are dropped. A non-citizen immigrant, after those six months would then be put into immigration detention and be deported, because it’s an aggravating felony. And a citizen on the other hand, without serving any time becomes the president of the United States, which is what happened with George Bush. And so, just looking at it in that sense, just how, if you are a non-citizen…you have to pay your pittance twice.

In the wake of 9/11 the US government took the mandate from these 1996 laws and expanded them to openly target Muslim males from a list of 25 countries of which all but one (North Korea) were predominantly Arab and Muslim countries.  In addition, there was the surveillance of mosques, Muslim cultural centres, Muslim neighbourhoods, and eventually a larger surveillance of New York’s subway system, parks, and bridges. This fact forced many New Yorkers—both Muslim and non-Muslim—to use other means of travel and to avoid certain types of activities, least they be suspect of “terrorist photography” or “bridge reconnaissance.”  Even the harassment of immigrants seeking asylum was well-documented in the years following 9/11 which was not limited to Muslims and Arabs, but generally pertained to non-white immigrants.

While the INS had began formulating the process of Special Registration in 2002, it was with the creation of Homeland Security in 2002 (not officially beginning operations until January 2003) that brought Special Registration to its full form which included requiring men from, initially, 18 different countries to register:

Men from selected countries or those who match “intelligence-based criteria” are subject to the new rules. Temporary foreign visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan or Syria must register by December 16. Visiting citizens of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates or Yemen must register by January 10, 2003.

Registration includes, typically, a meeting with an immigration official where the interviewees are fingerprinted (both digitally and by ink), photographed, and then they are interviewed and asked a series of questions under oath. In addition to the initial registration, foreign visitors are also required to appear at a U.S. immigration office within 10 days of the one-year anniversary date of their initial registration and required to complete a departure check only at a designated departure port on the same day that they intend to leave the country. The government thus considered the refusal to register as a criminal offence and the overstaying of any form of visa is a civil violation.  It also treated any minor visa violations, late submissions, or even paperwork dependant upon employer sponsorship as a deportable offence.

Because of Special Registration there was a roundup and detention of Arab and Muslim men carried out with unprecedented secrecy violating the very basic civil rights which are guaranteed by the US Constitution and the human rights delineated by the Universal Declaration which the United States helped draft (Eleanor Roosevelt was the Chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and played a major role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948).   In the months following 9/11, approximately 14,000 men were virtually disappeared from civil society in the United States as part of the US government’s implementation of the Patriot Act as executed through its Homeland Security Department.  Contiguous to the quite visible and much-discussed rendering of the dead of 9/11 and their memorialisation in American society in the years since 9/11, there has been a disturbing silence in American media and society at large regarding the routine rounding up, interrogation and imprisonment of these men of Arab origin throughout the United States that took place in the months following 9/11.

More recently, as I read of protests in the US and the UK against Trump, I am reminded of the particular form of amnesia that has selectively struck from history the vestiges of President Trump’s current attempts to ban immigrants from certain countries, albeit only seven of the longer list of countries from previous administrations. With the recent media diversions of #BathRobeGate and Obama’s vacation with Richard Branson, one might think that Trump’s current push to control immigration came from nowhere.  The reality, however, is that all that Trump proposes has been, in various forms, done before with Special Registration embodying some of the most vicious policies that three presidents preceding Trump not only enacted and/or enforced, but against which there was virtually no public outcry.  Even the recent proclamation by Homeland Security which went on record stating that Trump’s proposed ban does not target Muslims, but seven nations which are predominantly Muslim (the myth being that geographies and not people are the objects of scrutiny), was precisely what John Ashcroft stated when Homeland Security established it s list of 25 countries.

Although Special Registration was finally ended in 2011, its cultural remnants remain. For instance, in New York’s transport system today persists the 8th generation versions of public service announcements to include the multimedia adaptations of the “If you see something, say something” message from December 2002. as the suspicion of Muslims and Muslim Americans in the United States has now reached previously unimaginable depths.  Since its adoption by New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority, “See Something, Say Something” was also embraced by the City of Chicago, nationally with Department of Homeland Security, and abroad to include a variation in the United Kingdom.

During my fieldwork in New York which spanned seven years, I worked with community activists, lawyers, civil rights organisations, local artists, and Muslim targets of Special Registration from Brooklyn.  Even in my first meeting with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), I was told of the queues out their offices and down the street which alerted them to the situation of the many disappeared Muslim men post-9/11 as women showed up in the hundreds asking, “Where is my brother/husband/son?”  Bryan Lonegan, a prominent immigrants rights advocate recounts similar episodes:

Immediately following September 11, we started getting calls of people who disappeared. I’d get calls from relatives, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers, wives. “My husband disappeared.” “My son disappeared. We don’t know where he is. He went to work, we haven’t heard from him.”  And there was an initial period, a blackout period of a couple weeks where nobody could find out anything about what was happening to these people. And as you know, the government picked up over a thousand people. And then finally after a couple of weeks, they started to release information. If, they would tell you–they wouldn’t release who they had, but if you gave them a name, they’d tell you whether they had the person. So one day we had a phone call – we were unable to help anybody that said “Where’s my son, where’s my father?” Then one day we got a phone call from a detainee at the MDC (Manhattan Detention Center): “My name is such and such, please I need help, I’m at the MDC .” That was the whole message. So, we went to the MDC, myself and another lawyer, and we said “We want to see this guy.” Now, we were actually expecting that they would say no. But to our surprise, they brought us up to the SHU (special housing units).

Lonegan went on to detail for me the vast abuses at MDC which he was surprised to find had been accurately documented in two separate reports by the Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, which details numerous violations of physical and verbal assault.  Despite that the DOJ reports representing accurately what he observed at the MDC, Lonegan was concerned by other aspects of these reports, namely that they clearly document the violation of constitutional and statutory laws regarding attorney-client privilege:

But one of the things that really caught my eye personally, was that there was a couple of pages in which they said – and then we found all these tapes, because they were taping everything these guys did 24 hours a day. And the included tapes, audio and visual, I mean, video and audio tapes, of interviews between these guys and us, their attorneys, which is a gross violation of constitutional and statutory law….So, that’s what I talk about the creeping affect on American citizens. It’s not just the emigrants, but here I was, just this lawyer, trying to make sure that their constitutional was– you know,

Fast forward to Edward Snowden’s revelations of Prism in 2013, and it is not difficult to see the connection between the surveillance of one fraction of society and how this can be turned upon the general population. Yet, in the current discussion of Donald Trump’s targeting of Muslims, this entire history has been entirely forgotten.

The system of Special Registration was simply not clear to many, as Kareem Shora,   the then Director of the Legal Department and Policy at theAmerican-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee details:

We saw a lot of problems with this registration, even in the way it was announced, it was not implemented in the way that it was announced. For example, from group one and group two, a lot of people didn’t know they had to register because nobody told them. When they first announced group one, they didn’t send letters, they did not make any public announcements, they didn’t contact the Arab embassies that were involved. All they did was that they published it on the federal register, which is published every day with the new regulations from the federal government on all levels. Nobody really reads the federal register. Not even members of Congress read it. And the first time that INS published it was, in fact, ten days before the deadline. On their website they put, you know, their announcements on their website. Ten days; it was December 6th, 2002 – no, I’m sorry, 2001. Exactly ten days before December 16th when the first group should have – the deadline for the first group of countries. And people who did not register were basically, would face deportations and criminal proceedings as well. As a result of that they did file a two weeks extension in January, a kind of an Amnesty period for those who did not register, who did not know about it, to register within that two week timeframe. But that, obviously,…was very indicative that at the time the federal government was viewing men from these countries as suspects. Whether the Attorney General says yes or no, this is what the expression is. The federal government, the Justice Department, views these men from these 25 countries as suspects.

And Marc Krupanski, recounted to me the difficulty in finding those who had been arrested on immigration violations who were taken away to prisons in New York and throughout the United States.  Their whereabouts often took weeks, if not months to ascertain:

We were waiting, you know, for weeks or more than a couple of months to even know where people were. You know, because right after, that’s… when I started to hear the term “disappeared” being used a lot more. It’s just that nobody knew where their family members, community members were. After a few weeks we would finally get confirmation that they were held in MDC [Manhattan Detention Center] and then they had to fill out the paperwork and wait longer….The same thing is really kind of happening–people have been moved. People in New Jersey—often times people in New York get arrested and get put into a detention center in New Jersey, and then moved from there to Pennsylvania or moved to Louisiana…. That just..really disrupts and greatly fractures any sort of community and family ties—but also legal ties, too.

The reality is that the United States has a very long history of barring and racially profiling immigrants.  And this tradition goes way back if we look to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. This law was not repealed until 1943.

Of the 83,519 men interviewed under Special Registration between September 2002 and September 2003, according to Homeland Security statistics, at least 13,799 landed in deportation proceedings and were placed in removal.  Many remain unaccounted for by family members and others received cruel treatment upon return to their home countries where those suffering from HIV were not welcome and others were in danger of being classified as political prisoners.  Of those individuals who were deported,  not a single person was found to have any links to terrorist or violent activities.

Our task should be to understand from where Trump’s political trajectory is coming historically and not to annex Trump as some anomaly of American political culture. For Trump is not the exception, but represents the rule.  And Trump’s policies are not uniquely the rule of the Republican Party.  These immigration policies are the creation of decades of American bipartisan politics within which immigrants have always been underpaid, abused, exploited, and even deported.  If we are to address the issues at hand within this current administration, we must be honest and admit that problem over immigration is not Trump—it is those who pretend he is.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com