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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2002
The announcement came and went with barely a notice and, beyond Arab-American and Muslim groups, barely a whimper of protest. The Immigration and Naturalization Service said even though a majority of the 314,000 immigrants who have skipped out on their deportation orders are from Latin America, the agency is going after men from certain Middle Eastern and Muslim countries first. Same goes for student visa violators.
Our government has bluntly declared that it is enforcing laws selectively against a group of people on the basis of their nationality, and no one's raising an eyebrow. Well, I for one object. Even after Sept. 11, equal protection of law has meaning.
"Don't be a blind fool," my critics will say. "The terrorist threat is coming from a certain community. It would be political correctness ad absurdem to ignore this reality. The men the government is targeting for deportation are here illegally. Our government is merely enforcing immigration laws in a way that will enhance American security."
I understand the intrinsic appeal of this argument. But I believe our Arabs-first efforts are wrongheaded from both a civil liberties and safety perspective.
Safety first. There is no evidence that any of the estimated 6,000 illegal alien absconders from Arab nations are associated with terrorist acts. (If there were, they would have been arrested.) In fact, INS Commissioner James Ziglar, in announcing the program in December, specifically stated that this was not part of the government's antiterrorism efforts. What we do know is these policies are antagonizing and marginalizing the community of legal Muslims and Middle Easterners in the United States. "If you add this new policy with several others announced by this administration," Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the New York Times, ". . . the effect is to create a perception in the Muslim and Arab-American community that there is a two-tier legal system."
These communities are our most pivotal allies in combating Islamic militants, yet we are pushing them away and pushing some individuals, no doubt, into the arms of extremists.
Targeting Muslims for disparate treatment only gives ammunition to those in the rest of the world who would cultivate hate against our nation. Nineteen Muslim hijackers and a Saudi mastermind may have started it, but it is our government that has made thousands of Arabs and Muslims the enemy within. How will our selective deportations play in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, where clerics can mock our facile promise of blind justice? The move makes us look anti-Muslim, further driving a wedge between us and the moderates in the Islamic world. No, this is not a way to make us safer.
As to civil liberties, the INS is defying the guiding principle of our system of justice, which is that guilt is an individual undertaking, not something that can be ascribed to an ethnic group.
Every person who is in this country illegally should be deported, but it is not constitutionally acceptable to focus enforcement efforts on certain nationalities before others, even if, as the INS claims, it has limited resources and has to start somewhere.
Tracking down and deporting Middle Eastern absconders because a handful of Muslims have proven to be terrorists is like enforcing speeding laws against young, black males, since there is a greater likelihood of catching dangerous criminals in the process. Hey, the Highway Patrol can't catch every speeder so why not put the resources where they would do the most good?
Some would say that the terrorist threat is different, that black males didn't kill 3,000 people. And they'd be right, FBI statistics show that in the year 2000, black men were arrested for killing 6,809 people -- more than all other racial and ethnic groups combined.
But regardless of the statistics, racial profiling in law enforcement is pernicious. Crime statistics don't say anything about the culpability of an individual black man and no man should be a suspect due to the bad acts of others who look like him. The same holds true for Middle Easterners and terrorism. The fact that the terrorists have come from Arab countries (though with some noted exceptions) doesn't say anything about the culpability of individual Arabs.
In 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court said San Francisco couldn't drive Chinese immigrants out of the laundry business by selectively enforcing a law banning wooden laundries. Using the law as a club against groups of foreign nationals is a violation of our Constitution's equal protection guarantees, said the court.
Whether immigrants facing deportation, as opposed to criminal prosecution, could successfully make the same claim is an open legal question. Regardless of the law, however, our long-term safety is best served when we are seen as fair and evenhanded. This is not an "us" against "them" situation, but we're making it one.