The following article was published originally in Proletarian Revolution No. 64 (Spring 2002).
The U.S. government has been waging a ruthless campaign of immigrants for months, a centerpiece of the “war on terrorism” being conducted on these shores. But that like that same war abroad, it has an aim beyond the securing of the “homeland.” It is directed most immediately at thousands of immigrants of whom only a handful would have anything to do with terrorism. Its broader purpose is to weaken and divide the working class while the ruling class sharpens its claws in preparation for future attacks.
The catalyst for the campaign was, of course, the September 11 attacks. However angry Bush & Co. may have been, it took them little if any time to realize this was a perfect opportunity to ram though a series of repressive measures under the guise of fighting terrorism. The political climate including mass outrage at September 11 made this far easier than otherwise. And it was achieved with the active connivance of the Democrats.
The reaction began before the smoke had cleared from the World Trade Center, with the round up and detention of non-citizens, mostly men from Muslim or Middle Eastern countries. In October, the “USA PATRIOT” (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act was signed into law by President Bush after sweeping through Congress. Much of the anti-immigrant attacks since have been funneled through this vicious legislation.
The Patriot Act defines “terrorism” in a deliberately vague way that gives cops and other state goons maximum leverage to carry out a variety of oppressive acts. Much of it is focused on permitting the terrorization of undocumented immigrants.
If a non-citizen is charged with an immigration violation, he or she is subject to mandatory detention and is ineligible for release until the Attorney General decides. The Attorney General does not to have to inform the detainee of the evidence on which certification is based, nor does he have to provide an opportunity to contest the evidence at an immigration hearing.
So-called “terrorist activity” can simply mean the use of a weapon or dangerous device. (For example, an immigrant who grabs a knife or makeshift weapon in a heat-of-the-moment altercation or on a picket line may be subject to removal as a terrorist. Just soliciting money for humanitarian causes for an organization that has been labeled terrorist is also grounds for being charged for terrorist activity, and those charged must prove they could not have reasonably known that the act would further terrorist activity.
These and other measures deprive immigrants of their First Amendment and due process rights and gives a green light for abuses by the authorities. As a result, over 2000 immigrants have been sent to detention centers around the country. Only one of these detainees is even being charged with a crime related to the terror attacks. Most have been detained without being notified of the charges against them. Attorney General John Ashcroft has refused to release the names of many of the detainees to the media. Of those detained, some 327 are believed to remain in INS detention and an unknown number have been deported or released on bail, often after months in custody. Some 87 foreign nationals are now awaiting voluntary deportation; many have spent more than 100 days in jail.
An Amnesty International report of March 14, compiled through interviews with relatives and lawyers of the detainees and visits to the prisons, painted a chilling picture of the treatment of detainees in the detention centers.
In one case, an Egyptian man was detained on a immigration violation and held for more than five months. His window was blacked out as punishment because he failed to stand up when a guard came into his cell during prayer, and he was not allowed to see his wife for two months. He is considered suicidal. A Pakistani man was interrogated by the INS while handcuffed to a chair for 7 hours and denied access to a lawyer. When a lawyer found him the next day, he was in shock and crying.
The “war on terrorism” has also impacted immigrants other than those immediately targeted for police repression. Many Latino immigrants have faced long delays and lost jobs in the U.S. as a result of intensified border checks. They and other immigrant workers have felt greater pressure to keep their heads down; the anti-terrorist campaign has reinforced and tapped into racist sentiments in the country. This suits the needs of the ruling class fine, as it helps keep the better-paid American workers divided from the immigrant workers who are among the most desperate sections of the proletariat in these borders. It also puts immigrant workers in a situation of accepting even worse pay and conditions. It therefore means higher profits for the bosses.
As bad as the plight of immigrants under this legislation is, the PATRIOT Act goes far beyond those attacks. It minimizes judicial review of federal telephone and internet surveillance by law enforcement. It expands the ability of the government to conduct secret searches. It grants the FBI broad access to sensitive business records about individuals without having to show evidence of a crime. The police apparatus can use it to license the investigation and surveillance of political activists and organizations. Prosecutors will use it as a license to criminalize political dissent. This could lead to the anti-globalization protestors and the protestors against the bombing of Vieques being labeled domestic terrorists if they use civil disobedience or if there are spontaneous clashes with the police.
There have been some disagreements among the capitalist rulers over how far the campaign against immigrants should go. Some of the Democrats, and even some conservative Republicans like columnist William Safire and Representative Bob Barr, have been openly critical of the PATRIOT Act. But if there is some debate about the worst excesses, there is general agreement that this war must be prosecuted.
The working class and its allies must oppose and defeat this present and future campaign of repression. In fact, there have been a number of spirited demonstrations across the country over the past few months against it. The LRP has actively participated in those where we could muster forces. These include protests at detention canters in the New York area, and at City College, where a Syrian student, Reem Khalil, was jailed along with her family by authorities for “suspicion” of terrorism.
Some of those demonstrations have had varying degrees of official support from some union leaderships. This is welcome, since the working class is central to any defense, and the unions are the only mass organizations of the working class in the country now. But the paper support they offer falls short of a real mobilization of the unions. For example, the demonstration in New York on March 23 had on its list of endorsers no less than 15 local labor unions, yet only a few hundred people attended and not one of these unions mobilized their memberships. Revolutionists and labor militants should bring pressure to bear on the union leaders to not simply proclaim their support but to throw the real weight unions have into the fight.
This fight is most immediately one of defending immigrants who have been and will be attacked. But it must be seen as a defense of the working class and the masses as a whole.