Terror on the Inner Border | The Nation


Terror on the Inner Border

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Intercepted foreigners who cannot produce the needed visas and residency documents--and even some, like Habeeb, who can--are handcuffed, arrested and taken to the Hill County jail. They are allowed to contact attorneys, but many apparently are so confused that they do not. When enough "illegals" have been netted to warrant a transport south, they're collected by the Border Patrol, shackled and bused or flown first to a processing center in Idaho and then, in a procedural change instituted months after Habeeb's arrest, on to a 340-bed detention facility in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, run on behalf of ICE by the private company GEO Group.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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One of the consequences of this journey to Aurora is that the detainees are removed from Montana, which falls under the jurisdiction of the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, to Colorado, which is within the boundaries of the far more conservative Tenth Circuit. Whereas the Ninth Circuit judges are often sympathetic to those claiming refugee status or asylum and more reluctant to deport noncitizens who have been convicted of low-level crimes, the Tenth Circuit, according to attorneys like Regina Germain, author of a book on asylum law and onetime attorney with the UN High Commission for Refugees, shows no such circumspection. "A low-level crime doesn't qualify as a 'drug trafficking offense' in the Ninth Circuit but does in the Tenth Circuit," says Germain. "If your hearing is in the Ninth Circuit, you'll stay in the country. If it's in the Tenth Circuit, you'll be deported."

Some of those arrested and bundled off to Colorado have been in the process of applying for asylum or for refugee status. "It seems like, in the summer, I was getting calls a couple times a week," says Montana immigration attorney Debbie Smith, of the firm Reynolds, Motl and Sherwood. One of the women who contacted Smith was from El Salvador; she had fled her abusive husband and managed to get to Portland, Oregon. From there, she was trying to take the train to visit her sister in New Jersey. Instead, she was arrested in Havre and ended up in the immigration detention system.

At the other end of the bus ride from Havre to the detention facility in Colorado, Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network attorneys recall having had about fifteen clients in 2004 who had been plucked off the train at Havre. These men and women, the attorneys say, were from countries ranging from Uganda and Gambia to Nicaragua and Israel.

The routinization of checks like those now conducted at the Havre train station, and the culture of suspicion cultivated in such towns, are creating the psychological conditions and responses of a population under a national identity card system. A zone is being locked in place on the outer perimeter of the United States (within about 100 miles of a border) where people can be stopped, required to present ID and submit to intensive questioning without probable cause that they have committed a crime. Inside this inner border, the Constitution is no longer fully operable. With no evidence that would-be terrorists are being caught in this net, the question becomes whether the "benefit" of catching a few visa overstays or illegal migrant workers offsets the cost to civil liberties of having federal officers demanding identity papers of all and sundry miles from an international border and, in the process, shredding the Constitution's protections against illegal search and seizure.

"It has disturbing implications," says immigration law specialist Dan Kowalski of Austin, Texas. "What I've been watching with some dismay is our slow slide into a national identity system, while all the time saying we don't have one and aren't going to have one. The hydraulic pressure of 9/11 means there will be Congressional pressure toward a national ID."

As for Abdul Habeeb, two years on he is still trying to pick up the pieces of his life. "When I looked to the Statue of Liberty pictures in Iraq, I thought the freedom and democracy in this country was number-one around the world--and that nobody can stop anybody if he's done nothing wrong. I thought I'd be, in America, secure. Now, every night I fear somebody coming. Always, really, I'm scared."

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