Targeting the Innocent

An Interview with Sameer Ahmed

Sally Steenland interviews Sameer Ahmed, an attorney, about his work showing how Muslim Americans are unfairly treated under antiterrorism policies.

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SOURCE: Sameer Ahmed

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This interview is part of the Young Muslim American Voices Project, a project launched in 2009 by the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative that seeks to strengthen the voices and visibility of young Muslim American leaders.

Sameer Ahmed is a Skadden Fellow and attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. At AALDEF, Sameer provides direct representation, community education, and policy advocacy for low-income South Asian, Arab, and Muslim residents of New York City affected by government abuses of post-9/11 national security measures.

He is a recent graduate of Yale Law School, where he worked to promote civil rights and immigrants’ rights as a member of both the Balancing Civil Liberties & National Security Post 9/11 Clinic and the Workers and Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. In 2009 Sameer and his clinic team received the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Pro Bono Attorney of the Year Award for their work uncovering Operation Frontline, a secret national security program targeting Muslim immigrants around the 2004 presidential election. As a Marshall Scholar, Sameer holds master’s degrees from Oxford University in legal research and the School of Oriental and African Studies in Middle East politics. He received his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University.

With the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law and AALDEF, Sameer co-wrote the briefing paper, “Under the Radar: Muslims Deported, Detained, and Denied on Unsubstantiated Terrorism Allegations.”

Sally Steenland: I’d like to start by asking about a report you recently released, “Under the Radar,” that has some disturbing findings. In the report you show how the government is targeting Muslims, using immigration and other laws in discriminatory ways. How would you explain the report’s findings to someone who isn’t familiar with these issues?

Sameer Ahmed: Since 9/11 the federal government has relied heavily on immigration laws and policies to prosecute the so-called “war on terror.” The reasons for doing so are pretty clear. There are fewer checks and balances in the immigration system. It is a lot easier to arrest, detain, and investigate someone under immigration law than it is under criminal law. Some people may not know that, unlike in the criminal legal system, an individual in immigration court is not guaranteed an attorney and has no right to a speedy trial in front of a jury. Also, the government doesn’t have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in front of an independent judiciary.

These lesser protections have affected people of all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and have led to detentions and deportations nationwide. What our report shows is that they’ve also allowed federal officials to undertake initiatives that have specifically targeted Muslim immigrants in the name of national security.

Under the previous administration there were discriminatory policies like NSEERS, a special registration policy that targeted practically every male immigrant from a Muslim majority country and required them to register with the government. Our report shows that while NSEERS has ended, the government still uses the immigration system in other ways to arrest, detain, deport, and deny benefits to innocent Muslims, based largely on false allegations related to national security. We show that these allegations are mostly based on innuendo, religious and cultural affiliations, and even an individual’s political beliefs.

Sally: In the report you cite the Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report” and George Orwell’s novel 1984. In both, special government forces arrest people before they’ve committed a crime, even if there is no substantive evidence against them. Is that legal in the real world? Can you target and arrest someone based on a prediction of what they might do?

Sameer: Unfortunately, yes. Under the Immigration Nationality Act, the government can arrest, detain, and deport an individual if it believes the individual is likely to engage in terrorist activity at some point in the future. That is a very broad standard.

Take the case of a Palestinian man in California. The government admitted he had not taken any terrorist-related actions or criminal activity. Even so, the government said he was likely to engage in terrorist activity based on a variety of tenuous factors, including his university education in computer science, his clean criminal record, and the fact that he had an American immigrant visa. The government claimed these things would make him an attractive recruit for Hamas, which is a militant group and political party that currently governs the Gaza Strip where the man grew up. The truth is that using these facts as evidence could subject virtually any young Palestinian professional from Gaza to arrest, detention, and deportation.

Sally: It’s a Catch-22. The more innocent you appear, the more guilty you are. The fact that you don’t have a criminal record and are here legally is held against you.

Sameer: Yes. The government had an “expert” witness in the case who said the man would be a good recruit for Hamas because he appeared to be so innocent. Remember, they had no evidence that he was a member of that organization or had any interest in becoming one. At his immigration hearing, he repeatedly denied that he supported terrorism, was a member of Hamas, or supported any of their views.

Sally: So the evidence against him was a lack of evidence.

Sameer: Right.

Sally: What happened?

Sameer: He appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and unfortunately, the 9th Circuit agreed with the government. I am not sure if he is currently in detention and his attorney is planning to appeal to the Supreme Court, or if the government has effectuated his removal and deported him back to Gaza.

Sally: Using that case, let me play devil’s advocate and offer an argument I imagine you might sometimes hear. It goes like this: “The most important thing is to keep America safe. If in doing that, a few innocent people are wrongly accused, that is better than letting a terrorist slip through the cracks.” How would you respond?

Sameer: I’d first challenge the assumption that only a few innocent people have been harmed by these policies. Under NSEERS, the special registration policy, approximately 80,000 people from Muslim-majority countries registered with the government. These are 80,000 individuals who came forward to try to help the government in the war on terror. What happened? About 14,000 were placed in deportation proceedings, which devastated their friends and families here in the United States. Our report shows there are an untold number of individuals even today harmed by discriminatory policies on a daily basis. Almost every American Muslim can probably tell you a story of a family member or friend who has been affected by these policies.

Second, if we believe in the protections of due process and equal protection enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, we should believe that these protections apply to all U.S. residents, regardless of their religion or country of origin. If America’s only goal was to prevent terrorist attacks, we could shred the Constitution and live in a police state, but I don’t think that is what this country is about.

Another point is that following the Constitution and protecting the rights of all our residents actually makes America safer. Evidence shows that discriminatory policies alienate the groups and individuals we need most to help law enforcement. Many police officers argue that the most effective law enforcement strategies are those that work with communities in fair and honest ways to identify real threats.

Finally, such policies can have a negative effect on American foreign policy. In the global war on terrorism, discriminatory policies undermine our credibility with countries overseas and also raise doubts about our values, as well as our commitment to international human rights standards.

Sally: So the stakes are high. How would you explain this to an American who might not know a Muslim, who is worried about keeping his job and raising his kids, and who might say, “What does all this have to do with me?”

Sameer: As you say, Americans today probably care first and foremost about the state of the economy. Government spending is a major concern in the headlines. Discriminatory policies and practices, many of which are outlined in our report, are a huge waste of taxpayer resources. And they don’t make America safer.

Take the NSEERS policy. The government wasted millions of dollars to create a database that targeted tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants. In the end, not a single person was convicted of a terrorism-related crime. These policies arguably make America less safe. Law enforcement is wasting time going after innocent people instead of pursuing individuals who pose a credible and specific threat.

Also, we need to remember the history of the United States. At various times in our history, groups have been subjected to widespread discrimination. Native Americans, African Americans, women, the Irish, Jews, Catholics, Chinese, Japanese, Latinos, the LGBT community—the list goes on. Muslims and immigrants may face the brunt of discrimination today, but it may be a different group tomorrow. That should remind us that we are all in this together.

Sally: You released “Under the Radar” in early May. What has the response been? What are your recommendations?

Sameer: The response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially within immigrants’ rights, civil rights, and Muslim American communities. I think most people recognize that our report provides a missing piece in the immigration debate, as well as advocacy regarding civil rights issues. We have also received positive response from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

As for next steps, we believe there needs to be both large-scale and small-scale changes in American immigration law and policy to ensure that due process and equal protection rights are protected in the immigration process.

We support legislative changes. For instance, the End Racial Profiling Act has been introduced in Congress, as well as the JUSTICE Act. Both bills would help alleviate some of the problems we are facing.

We also support changes within the executive branch, including the Department of Homeland Security, to alter its regulations and use its prosecutorial discretion to make sure that the civil rights of individuals are upheld. Agencies should use their limited resources not in large-scale discrimination, but to target real and serious threats to our national security.

We hope the report will broaden the immigration reform debate in this country. The media debate seems largely focused on undocumented immigration among Latinos. We want people to understand in a broader sense why the immigration system is broken and why it devastates families from many races and religious backgrounds. We hope this report will help broaden the coalition fighting for more humane and just immigration laws.

Sally: One of the policies used in immigration enforcement is Secure Communities. It is a controversial program and has just been changed a bit by the administration.

Sameer: Secure Communities empowers local law enforcement officials to help enforce federal immigration law. It is a bad idea for a number of reasons. First, programs like Secure Communities actually make America less safe. Police chiefs from around the country are opposed to them because they divert limited resources from serving and protecting the communities to enforcing federal immigration law.

Programs like Secure Communities also decrease trust between law enforcement and local immigrant communities. Individuals with vulnerable immigration status are less likely to report crimes and to cooperate with local police if it is likely they’ll end up in deportation proceedings. Additionally, these policies almost always lead to racial profiling. Local law enforcement often targets people of color when enforcing immigration law—especially Latino and Asian communities.

Finally, although the government has repeatedly stated that Secure Communities and programs like it only go after the most dangerous criminals, the data released about these types of policies suggest otherwise. The vast majority of individuals deported under these programs have been convicted of minor offenses or many times nothing at all.

Sally: I want to widen the lens a bit. Some of the report’s findings show a number of serious and troubling abuses against Muslim American communities. That’s the reality. But there is little public awareness of these injustices. Why is there such gap between the reality on the ground and public perception? How can we make that gap smaller?

Sameer: There are a variety of reasons for the gap. One is that the threat of terrorism still exists today, and the United States is currently engaged in three wars with Muslim-majority countries in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Also, the media tends to focus on negative depictions of Muslims across the world. And there is an industry of anti-Muslim bigots in this country who are making a lot of money to speak at events and sell books demonizing Muslims and spreading lies about Islam.

Discriminatory government policies don’t help. When the government legitimizes discrimination against a group of people, it’s only natural that the general public will also begin to view that group with contempt.

To conclude on a more positive note about what we can do to narrow the gap—I think that American Muslims need to do a better job sharing our stories with our fellow Americans and showing who we really are. We need to strengthen our coalitions with neighbors and friends and with other communities that share similar concerns. We need to engage civically with our local, state, and national government. Only as we continue to do these things will the gap between reality and perception narrow, and we will be able to move forward in a more constructive way.

Sally: Speaking of looking forward, let’s look ahead three months to September 11 and the 10th anniversary of the attacks. As you look at that 10-year period between 2001 and now, what mistakes were made? What lessons have we learned?

Sameer: In the days and weeks after 9/11, America was probably more united than it ever has been. Like all Americans, Muslims did all we could do to support our country in those challenging times. But government policies in the aftermath of 9/11 “led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals,” to quote President Obama in his 2009 speech in Cairo.

With the election of President Barack Obama, I and many others hoped that his administration would make a clear break from the previous administration’s policies and usher in an era of greater civil liberties for everyone. But in terms of national security policy as it relates to the Muslim American community, a change in rhetoric hasn’t really led to a change in policy. Guantanamo Bay is still open. The Department of Justice has not held anyone accountable for government abuses since 9/11. We have seen a continuation of the previous administration’s immigration and security policies. Regarding immigration, this government has deported more people than at any time in its history.

What I see moving forward, at least for the Muslim American community, is the need to continue working with other communities across America as we push for more humane and just policies for all of us, regardless of ethnicity, religious background, or sexual orientation. We also need to strengthen our engagement with political leaders. When our voices become stronger and more unified, we will see the fruits of our labor. Let’s hope that in another 10 years we will see those changes.

Sally: Thanks for talking with us today and thanks for the good work you do.

Sameer: Thanks, Sally.

Listen to the interview (mp3)

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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