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Vigilante Justice | The Nation

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Vigilante Justice

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On Friday, September 15, four days after the terrorist attacks, an 18-year-old Moroccan boy received an unusual request from his school guidance counselor: Come see me as soon as you can and bring your passport. On Monday, well before his 8 am class, the boy climbed the steps to James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and handed over papers showing that his visa had expired. A half-hour later he was waiting anxiously in the school security office. He didn't know the police were going to handcuff him and take him down to the station. "I was upset I had already missed the first period, Virginia Government," said the young man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in a phone call with his lawyer listening in.

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About the Author

Amy Bach
Amy Bach is the author of Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court.

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Officer Jim Shelhorse, public information officer for the Fredericksburg police, said the police never suspected the boy of terrorist activity. And the boy's lawyer says that he had a pending application to extend his visa, which meant that he was free to be here. But such distinctions were lost on the police and school. And by the time his visa did expire on December 4, the boy was already imprisoned in an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention center in Arlington, Virginia. "I am treated like a criminal," he said in a phone interview from the detention center this winter. "I am with drug dealers and gun dealers. They are not mistreating me but I am not comfortable."

The way the school guidance counselor turned in this student is just one example of how, post-9/11, ordinary citizens have become watchdogs policing the gateways to this country. Whereas the INS used to be solely responsible for enforcement, others now eagerly participate in that task. In fact, this activity has been encouraged: Weeks after the terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration asked people to report suspicious activity at the same time that it announced plans to use immigration laws to fight terrorism, giving the impression that immigration is everyone's business. Then, in December, a month after the Justice Department asked police around the country to track down and interview some 5,000 Middle Eastern men, the INS announced it was placing 314,000 immigrants wanted for deportation on an FBI database used by nearly all police agencies to check criminal charges. Now even a local police officer writing a traffic ticket can determine that a violator is subject to a deportation order and presumably make an arrest. And on January 31 President Bush announced the creation of a national volunteer agency called Citizen Corps to engage "ordinary Americans" in reporting suspicious activity to the authorities. The government will also expand the "Neighborhood Watch" program, in which people report their neighbors' suspected terrorist connections.

As critics point out, when ordinary citizens or the police and FBI do the INS's work, they don't know what they are doing. The result is both inefficiency and discrimination. "It discourages immigrants from providing information when they are the victims," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "And it creates this population that is exploited, denied protections of the law to the detriment of society as a whole." The problem isn't new. In 1997 the police in Chandler, Arizona, conducted a sweep of illegal immigrants as part of an effort to "beautify" the rumpled agricultural town. Working with the Border Patrol, police approached people on the street based on the "lack of personal hygiene" and "strong body odor common to illegal aliens," according to police reports leaked to the press. Police then asked to see ID and immigration papers. Among the 432 people caught in the "Operation Restoration" dragnet were scores of US-born Hispanics who sued the city for discrimination.

Federal immigration officers undergo a seventeen-week residential program that includes instruction on how to legally arrest someone on grounds like fraudulent document production. Lacking such training, police in Chandler often wrongly concluded documents were fakes and arrested people anyway. "There has to be a reasonable, particularized suspicion of wrongdoing," said Stephen Montoya, a civil rights lawyer who represented the Chandler plaintiffs. "It can't just be because you speak Spanish." In the case of the high school boy, the school guidance counselor had little reason to ask for papers besides his national identity. The boy's lawyers have argued that the school had no jurisdiction to ask for immigration documents, and that a high school student can't be denied basic education because he is an undocumented immigrant. But the immigration judge rejected those arguments. (School officials declined to comment.)

Legally, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act makes it easier for law enforcement to collaborate with the INS and request information from the government. And though the law doesn't require schools to report immigration violations, "drawing the line is very difficult for individual citizens," says Peter Schuck, a Yale Law School professor. In the past, however, courts have struck down laws encouraging citizens to become INS snitches. California's Proposition 187, which attempted to recruit social workers and government bureaucrats to report immigration violators so they would be denied access to public services, was declared unconstitutional by federal courts.

Ironically, some of the post-9/11 policies actually obstruct antiterrorism efforts by discouraging people from cooperating with authorities. When the Justice Department asked 5,000 Arab-American men to come forward, it was unclear whether the men were putting themselves at risk of being turned in to the INS. "That's not a good law enforcement strategy," said Ben Johnson, associate director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Perhaps even more disturbing, alerting the government because someone appears swarthy or wears a turban is now considered acceptable behavior. "What is wrong with calling the FBI?" said Father James Mueller, a priest in Queens, New York, when I asked if he had any regrets about making a report on Rafiq Butt, a 55-year-old Pakistani, after neighbors saw six Middle Easterners go to an apartment he shared with three other Pakistani men. Butt died in detention of a heart attack. In another case, on November 13, FBI agents wearing biohazard gear swooped into the home of two Pakistani men; their neighbors reportedly suspected them of manufacturing anthrax after they saw them dumping a cloudy liquid (soapy water from a clogged sink) and handing over a silver canister (a food dish for a friend) outside their home. The men said they understood.

The Virginia high school student was similarly charitable. He came to this country by himself last year trying to escape what he would only describe as discrimination based on his sexual orientation. A Queens mosque helped him with a place to stay and he eventually met a friend who offered him his country house in Fredericksburg while he completed high school. He had only attended the school for three days when he was arrested. "This happened because of one person," he said. "The majority of people treated me very good. The students were nice. They showed me the whole school. They were helpful. The math teacher liked me. It was Algebra II. I had it when I was in eighth grade. I did the exercises very fast." At press time he was out on bond, living with a foster family in Washington, working on getting his GED and waiting for a July asylum hearing. His future plans are to attend college and major in finance, perhaps in Canada.

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