Fortress America

Fortress America


Written by: CARF

As America plunges into a period of imperialist expansion, immigrant communities – particularly of Middle-Eastern and South Asian descent – have been caught in the teeth of a new domestic totalitarianism.

Every Friday, a small group of protesters holds a picket outside the New York offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) on Manhattan’s Broadway. They are supporters of Farouk Abdel-Muhti, a 55-year-old Palestinian political activist who has been detained by the immigration authorities. According to the INS, Farouk is being held in detention while his deportation is arranged. Yet, they have had since April 2002, when he was first arrested, to make these arrangements. As his lawyers point out, he cannot be deported to a Palestine that has no recognised state to ‘accept’ him. And he has been in the USA since 1976 with a son who is a citizen. So why detain him now? Just a couple of weeks before his arrest, Farouk began working with a New York radio station, arranging interviews with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. He had also been prominent in Arab communities, campaigning against the post-9/11 clampdown on immigrants. His supporters believe these are the real reasons for his imprisonment. He is now in a maximum-security segregation unit, after organising a hunger strike with other immigration detainees.

But his case is just one of many in the barrage of initiatives against immigrant communities since the launch of America’s ‘war against terrorism’, in a spectrum which runs from gross violations of human rights to petty bureaucratic humiliations. Those humiliations are etched in the faces of the long queue of people – thousands strong – that stretches from the doorway of New York’s INS offices, around the side of the building and off into the distance, giving Farouk’s picketing supporters a captive audience. Some are queuing because of the government’s new compulsory registration programmes for foreign nationals, others to extend their visas or to notify the authorities of a change in their status. Everyone there knows that the slightest violation of the rules could see them locked up or bundled onto a plane to be deported.

Arbitrary arrest

A couple of blocks away from the INS office is the site of the World Trade Center, where a modest memorial lists the names of the dead. But there are other victims who will not be remembered. Mohammed Rafiq Butt is one of them. He had come to work in New York, hoping to send home some money to help his children in Pakistan. After September 11, 2001, with government officials telling the public to be on the lookout for potential terrorists, some of his neighbours called the police saying that they thought Rafiq Butt looked suspicious. As a result, he joined 1,200 other foreign nationals who were rounded up and held without charge in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. The FBI passed him on to the INS who detained him in a New Jersey jail for a minor visa violation.

On 24 October 2001, he died there after complaining of chest pains for two days. He had been denied medical treatment. At first, FBI officials refused to allow the body to leave the USA. An autopsy eventually performed in Pakistan revealed marks on his body – multiple fractures in his legs and chest, as well as deep bruises – which suggested that he had been tortured before his death.

Butt fell victim to the apartheid legal system that was erected by the Bush regime following September 11, in which foreign nationals became subjected to intense surveillance, arbitrary arrest, secret trials and worse. The gulag at Guantanamo Bay is the most obvious example, where about 660 people are imprisoned indefinitely at the whim of military tribunals, beyond the protection of the US constitution or international law. But an apartheid legal system operates domestically, too, against foreigners working or studying in America, who effectively no longer enjoy the constitutional protections they had previously shared with full US citizens.

Indeed, the control of foreign nationals has become the main domestic front in the war against terrorism, with the INS becoming subsumed into the new Department of Homeland Security. In the process, America has moved from a nation that sought to exploit and integrate immigrant labour, to one that seeks to eradicate it, however impractical that may be for the US economy. Immigration is thus the one policy area where America now imitates Europe, rather than vice versa. But, while Fortress Europe provides the inspiration for this new approach, the scale of repression surpasses anything we have so far seen on this side of the Atlantic. 

Total surveillance

The ambition of the new American approach is to create a system of total surveillance of foreign nationals, enabling the authorities to monitor and locate every non-citizen travelling through or resident in the USA. Whereas before September 11, computer databases of immigration details were kept separate from police databases, Attorney-General John Ashcroft has, since then, been eager to put regular police officers in the frontline of the war against immigrants. Local law enforcement agencies have therefore been given the power to arrest persons on suspicion of violating immigration law, a power previously restricted to the INS. And hundreds of thousands of case files of immigration information have been integrated into the National Criminal Information Center database, giving every police officer the ability to check immigration status during a traffic stop or other encounter. This has led to a huge increase in police stops of Middle-Eastern and South Asian-looking drivers for interrogation as ‘suspected terrorists’, in the same way that African-Americans are stopped on suspicion of drugs, or, as it has come to be called, for ‘driving while black’. (So many Arabs and Asians have been ejected from flights because they looked ‘suspicious’, that the phrase ‘flying while brown’ has come into use to describe this new quasi-crime.)

Later this year, the Department of Homeland Security will introduce USVisit, a new electronic checking system that photographs, fingerprints and iris-scans every foreign national entering or leaving the US for work or study. This will enable the US government to operate a level of surveillance of movement through the country that has never before been attempted. But for those foreigners who are already resident in America, the authorities have conducted a series of registration programmes, the aim of which is to track all foreign nationals by 2005. Every resident of a particular nationality is required to register with the immigration authorities by a certain date or face immediate arrest and deportation.

Zero tolerance

‘Registration’ involves being fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated, thus adding to the already vast pool of data being collected on foreign nationals by the US state, with little accountability. So far, men who are nationals of a selection of Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries have been rounded up by setting a series of distinct deadlines. Hundreds of thousands of people have so far come forward, of whom thousands have been detained and tens of thousands given notice to appear at immigration hearings. The slightest violation – for example, failing to notify the authorities of a change of address or spending too much time abroad – can lead to detention and/or deportation proceedings.

In December 2002, the INS took out ads in Los Angeles’ ethnic media, which gave the impression that a forthcoming registration process would be a normal procedure. But it soon emerged that it was not. Around 400 men and boys from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria were detained – one in four of those who came forward – mostly for minor visa violations. Lawyers reported that those arrested were taken to prison cells so crowded that some were forced to rest standing up, while others were hosed down with cold water before finding places to sleep on concrete floors. About 3,000 people protested outside LA’s federal building as news of the arrests spread.

The fact that would-be terrorists are unlikely to participate voluntarily in the registration programme seems to have been lost on the INS. But along with any terrorists, many others, who have what previously would have been considered minor problems with their immigration status, are choosing to go underground for fear of being deported. And fear is also leading many others to accept voluntary deportation for minor violations that would not ordinarily be deportable offences. When they are the family breadwinner, then entire families, including children who are US citizens and have lived there their entire life, are uprooted.

Just as zero tolerance policing in America’s black ghettos put millions of young African-American men behind bars, so zero tolerance of immigration offences is criminalising vast numbers in America’s poorest immigrant communities. In both cases, the usual checks and balances against miscarriages of justice are swept aside.

Workplace raids

The systematic trawling for immigrants has also reached the workplace. In November 2001, 10,000 immigrant workers at airports across America lost their jobs following new regulations that prevent foreign nationals from working in aviation. In addition, a series of high-profile raids – which were presented as anti-terrorist operations – led to more than 1,000 workers being arrested and deported for immigration violations. For example, 143 workers – mostly women preparing in-flight meals – were arrested at Houston’s George Bush airport. Many were no longer employed at the airport but were lured back there by their former employer for the day so that they could be arrested in the raid. Needless to say, none of those arrested was charged with any offence related to terrorism.

While non-citizens are no longer trusted to work in airports, there are no such restrictions on sending them into battle to fight the US state’s imperialist wars. An estimated 38,000 foreign nationals have been recruited into the US military, joining the disproportionately high number of African-Americans in the lower ranks. Often they join up in the belief that putting their life at risk for the US government will increase their chances of gaining citizenship. One such person was Jose Gutierrez, who entered the United States illegally after being orphaned as a child in Guatemala. He was one of the first US servicemen killed in the war on Iraq.

Refugee rights

In line with other anti-immigration policy changes, the number of refugees admitted to the USA has been dramatically reduced over the last eighteen months. And, emulating the European Union, Canada and the USA have recently signed a ‘safe third country’ accord, meaning that asylum seekers who have passed through the USA to reach Canada, or vice versa, will be rejected outright.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security is detaining asylum seekers in much greater numbers. In March 2003, all asylum seekers from a list of over 30 Middle Eastern and Asian countries were detained as part of the security build-up connected to the war on Iraq. The following month, the government won the effective right to detain any asylum seekers, regardless of whether they pose an immediate national security risk. In the test case of David Joseph, a detained Haitian asylum seeker who had sought to be released on bail while awaiting the outcome of his case, federal agencies argued that his release could prompt an ‘influx’ of Haitians seeking to immigrate to the US. This would, in turn, overburden the coastguard, who would then be less effective in guarding against terrorist attacks! The only nationals not affected by the new ruling are Cubans, who are permitted by law to remain in the US if they reach its shores.

But some of the attempts at mass deportations, conducted in the name of national security, have failed. In January, campaigners from the Seattle-based Hate Free Zone Campaign successfully challenged the US government’s plans to deport around 2,700 Somalis. Their removal was claimed to be necessary as part of the war against terrorism, even though no evidence was provided to link even one of these individuals to a terrorist group. A district judge has now imposed a national moratorium on deportations to Somalia, citing instability in the country and the lack of a recognisable authority to accept the deportees. The court also rejected the argument that Somali nationals in the USA pose any terrorist threat.


A growing network of community organisations has sprung up in response to the Bush government’s clampdown on immigrant rights. The scattergun approach is producing in its victims a mutual recognition that they are all suffering at the hands of the same system, whether they are Iranians in California feeling vulnerable to arrest or Mexicans having to dodge border patrols. And groups such as the Blue Triangle Network, a national organisation campaigning against detentions and surveillance, are increasingly linking domestic repression to overseas injustices. As shown by the arrest of Farouk Abdel-Muhti, those targeted by the INS are often those who are most vocal in speaking out against US foreign policy in their home countries.

As well as Farouk Abdel-Muhti, there are several other cases of Palestinian political activists who have been detained for spurious immigration offences. Amer Jubran was taken from his home by INS and FBI agents in November 2002, just two days after helping to organise a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Boston. A permanent resident, he was held on technical violations in his green card status, but was eventually released on bail. He continues to face a deportation order. A Chicago-based Palestinian activist, Ahmed Bensouda, was similarly detained for a minor visa violation before a campaign managed to win his release.

Patriot Act II?

But as community groups organise to challenge the zero tolerance regime, often mounting successful judicial reviews of immigration policies, so the Bush administration is seeking new powers to bypass these checks.

In February 2003, a draft of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 – the so-called Patriot Act II – was leaked to the press. Among its proposals was a new power that would allow the Attorney-General to deport any foreign national whose presence he deems inconsistent with ‘national security’ (which is defined to include ‘economic interests’ or ‘foreign policy’). And this power would not be open to review by the courts. Furthermore, deportations would no longer require a recognisable government to accept the deportees – the stumbling block for the government’s attempt to deport Somalis en masse.

The proposed Act would also radically expand law enforcement and intelligence-gathering authorities, reduce or eliminate judicial oversight over surveillance, authorise secret arrests (so that arrests under terrorism laws could be kept secret until an indictment is filed), create a DNA database based on unchecked government ‘suspicion’, extend the death penalty to further offences, and allow American citizenship to be taken away from persons who belong to or support disfavoured political groups, even if they are native-born. Once stripped of their citizenship, they would be subject to the arbitrary deportation power or, presumably, incarceration at Guantanamo Bay.

Whether these new powers are granted remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the repression of dissenting immigrant voices is becoming an essential component in the machinery of American imperialism.

ADDENDUM: Caught in the web, Britons and Canadians

Even citizens of other western countries travelling to America as visitors are getting caught in the web of suspicion.

  • In January 2003, Berna Cruz, a Canadian national of Indian origin, was travelling back, via Chicago, from a visit to India. At Chicago airport, immigration officials accused her of using a false Canadian passport, threatened her with jail and denied her access to consular assistance. The officials, presumably thinking themselves experts on South Asian names, had apparently become suspicious that someone of Indian origin could have a Portuguese name – something that is not, in fact, uncommon. Cruz was then deported, not to Canada, but to India where it took four days before she was able to get back to Toronto.
  • In February 2003, Lesley Woodburn, a 38-year-old black British woman, was held in detention for 24 hours at New York’s JFK airport with her arms and legs shackled, after arriving in the US for a ten-day visit. Immigration staff told her that she would be deported because she had overstayed on a tourist visa by three days in 1997. She alleges that she was denied access to a lawyer and proper food.

Related links

Blue Triangle Network

Hate-Free Zone, Seattle

Free Farouk campaign

Amer Jubran defense campaign

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

4 thoughts on “Fortress America

  1. What i first thought when i read this article was that this was alot of Anarchist crap. I read it again and again to see if i was just being cinical, but i wasn’t. Arguing about if he should have been allowed to enter our country is stupid. Almost as stupid as being an enviromentalist. Seeing the United States being called “impeirialists” and “criminal” angers me to the point were i felt it warrented a comment. If he wanted to live in the US he should have gone through the legal process.

  2. What i first thought when i read this article was that this was alot of Anarchist crap. I read it again and again to see if i was just being cinical, but i wasn’t. Arguing about if he should have been allowed to enter our country is stupid. Almost as stupid as being an enviromentalist. Seeing the United States being called “impeirialists” and “criminal” angers me to the point were i felt it warrented a comment. If he wanted to live in the US he should have gone through the legal process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.