Door Mat, Not Welcome Mat: Immigrants Tell of Re-Entry Hurdles
By Devika Koppikar
Nearly two years after the termination of the controversial NSEERS program (for National Security Entry-Exit Registration System) (http://www.dhs.gov/dhs-removes-designated-countries-nseers-registration-may-2011) many immigrants continue to face barriers at U.S. ports-of-entries when returning from overseas trips.
A majority of the immigrants facing reentry barriers have legal status and are simply returning to jobs, families and communities, activists say. Yet, they face heavy interrogations on their overseas activities, local (U.S.) activities, and any previous criminal records. If the passengers’ answers are vague or unclear, or if they have a name that sounds similar to a suspected terrorist, they are held back and not allowed to go through to baggage claim. On several occasions, the interrogations have led to detainments, arrests, or deportations.
The difficulties immigrants face upon returning home was one of the main topics of discussion December 16 at an Immigration Town Hall, held at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia. Led by the Center’s outreach director, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the event featured speakers sharing stories of harassment and intimidation at the hands of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials at airports or borders. Much of the focus at this meeting was on those who practice Islam or come from Islamic-majority countries including Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Abdul-Malik said the most scrutiny falls on this group of immigrants.
“If you’re European, you have an easier path (to immigrating or entering the United States). If you’re Western European, even better,” he said. “But if you come from one of the countries on the U.S. watch list, even if you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do, you are given a litany of excuses [hindering re-entry].”
In response to 9/11, the U.S. Department of Justice (and later the Department of Homeland Security) implemented NSEERS in 2002. It required noncitizen men between the ages of 16 and 45, mostly from Muslim-majority countries, to submit to fingerprinting, photographs, intensive questioning, and periodic registration with the government, said Leslie Holman, vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Immigration advocates charged this policy unfairly targeted people based on race, national origin and religion, and the program was terminated in 2011.
“But many of the policies and practices created by NSEERS are still in existence,” said Holman.
One Somali man, who feared giving his name or being photographed, spoke at the town hall and related a harrowing experience. For him, the remnants of NSEERS policy meant spending the night in a holding cell when CBP officials did not believe he was a legal refugee upon his return from a trip abroad. During interrogations, the man’s answers did not convince officials that he was telling the truth.
“They put me in a cell that was worse than a place where you would keep a vile animal,” the man said. “But because I know English and know my rights, I was released the next day. But, I had to prove that I am really a refugee.”
Holman said whenever people leave the country, they are subject to questioning by CBP officials upon their return, especially since 9/11. However, CBP does not release the specific questions to the public for security reasons, she said.
But Abdul-Malik said these questions include these: “Where did you travel to?” (even though the person being questioned has ticket and itinerary); “What did you do there?” and “Did you meet with any radical people?” At other times, the questions seek information from a person’s past, such as “Have you ever been arrested?” or “Have you attended [such-and-such] place of worship?”
These questions are asked of Abdul-Malik, a Brooklyn, NY born-American, receives when returning from a pilgrimage to the Mecca or an international speaking engagement.
Those who don’t satisfactorily answer the questions or provide vague answers are subject to further interrogation, detainment, or arrest. And that can lead to a criminal record, deportation and virtual impossibility to a path to citizenship, said Abdul-Malik. He added that he believes it’s a deliberate effort to tie many foreign or even American-born individuals to terrorism.
Hossein Goal, who serves on the Dar Al-Hijrah’s board of trustees and spoke at the event added, “This is a process of intimidation, not a process of the law.” Goal left Iran 33 years ago and has lived in the United States since that time. “This is our home. As long as people are contributing to the goodness of society and there is a place for us, why should we be kept out? What is wrong with us?” Goal said.
. Much of the information gathered during these interviews is used to build a case against the individual, said Anoop Prasad, staff lawyer at the Asian Law Caucus in California. “However, even a minor misdemeanor from 30 years ago could put a person for risk of deportation,” he said.
For a Howard University computer science professor and Egyptian immigrant (who did not wish to be identified), a return trip to the United States after a holiday became an extended stay in his home country, he said at the town hall. Although he is in this country on a legal visa and has a family here, including an American-born son, CPB officials in Germany refused to let him re-board the plane during a stopover.
“It didn’t make any sense as to why they would hold me back,” said the professor, who added that after waiting several hours, he was told that his visa had a problem, an issue previously unknown to him. As a result of this, he had to return to Egypt, buy a new plane ticket at his expense and resolve the matter with the American Embassy. He was then required to leave his passport with the embassy to get his visa updated, he said.
“When I went to pick up the passport, nobody at the embassy knew where it was. They said they couldn’t find it,” he said. He was asked to return the next day, which, coincidently was in the middle of the 2011 Egyptian “Arab Spring” revolution at Tahrir Square. Because of the chaos, he did not receive his proper papers until a few weeks later.
“This time I bought a direct flight from Cairo to Washington,” said the professor.
While this story eventually had a positive outcome, many stories follow a less desirable path, both Abdul-Malik and Prasad said.
For example, Prasad said that he currently is working with an elderly diabetic client who has been detained for the past year for a petty theft charge originating in the 1980’s. Despite his permanent resident status, authorities are holding this man, who is originally from Fiji, based on this old charge.
Rev. Terrance H. Ellen, Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice, who organized the town hall with Dar Al-Hijrah, said, “What struck me was the clear effort to take every connection a person has in his or her life and make it into something negative, related to terrorism. They are marked as terrorists unless proven otherwise,” said Ellen, who has attended several similar town halls in an effort to advocate for immigrant rights. “This is not acceptable, even to ‘protect’ Americans against so-called foreign threats.”
Many town hall attendees, who included members of Dar Al Hijrah and Unitarian Universalists, expressed that a person’s success in navigating the complexities of the immigration system depends on his or her knowledge with regards to rights and access to resources such as lawyers or advocacy groups.
“The first individuals to be attacked are often the most vulnerable,” said Abdul Malik, referring to people who know little English and work in low-wage jobs. “Sometimes the pendulum of justice swings in the right direction, but there are periods when they swing in the wrong direction. [The vulnerable people] rely on people like you and I, to put that pendulum in the right direction. If we’re awake, then we’ll be able to swing the pendulum back in the right direction.”
Following the town hall, the members of the Unitarian Universalists group and Dar Al Hijrah discussed a plan to work together in the future to help those facing intimidation at ports-of-entry.