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.
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.