January 17, 2003

First Person

Security or an Excuse for Government Sponsored Racism?

By Isadora Malon

We arrived at the INS at 4:00 a.m., and were directed to the side of the building where the street was lined with people trying to immigrate into the U.S. I was particularly struck by the image of a Mexican woman carrying a baby. The woman wore a skirt with only flip-flops on her feet and a light sweater, and all her attention was focused on keeping the infant sleeping in a carrier, covered with a pale yellow blanket. I wore a thick sweater and a jacket with lined trousers and warm socks, and still felt the chill from the early morning air.

On December 16, I had the unique experience as a U.S. citizen, of waiting in line at the INS as part of the special registration for non-citizens of specific Muslim countries. I was there as support for a friend who is Iranian. Iran is one of 5 countries whose males over the age of 16 were required to register with the INS Monday.

As my friend and I stood outside, a number of Middle Eastern men began lining up, greeting us after recognizing my friend’s origin. Standing there, we became acquainted with some of them. The rumors had already started to fly. Some people would be arrested. The bail could be as high as $5000. Many would be deported. I saw the anxiety on the face of a Syrian man who told me, “I’m Christian. I’ve done nothing wrong,” he paused, “I’ve never been to jail before.” I saw the fear in his eyes as he lit one of many cigarettes he smoked that day, as we waited outside in the cold.

Once inside, we filled out a form with all my friend’s information, and I asked the officer who called him in if I could come along for the interview. My friend was lucky. The woman who interviewed him was kind, and allowed me to accompany them to a back office. She took his fingerprints and photographed him for the INS’s records. I wondered at the process. He was now in their system as having registered, but what did it mean? If he were a terrorist, would he have come in to register?

At one point I asked what the process was. The officer informed me that she would be giving us a packet of information about registering in the future, and my friend and I glanced at one another, wondering if this meant he would be leaving with me.

The night before we had sat in my living room imagining every possible scenario we might encounter. I grew sad realizing that two years ago, the situation would have been different for him and many others, that due to the current political climate in my country, he was less welcome than he might have been in another time.

After the officer handed us a packet of information, she held my friend’s Iranian passport and told us to go sit in the lobby. She had one more check to do. We walked back out to where our new friends still awaited their initial interview, and while we had a sense of relief, we also were hesitant about celebrating until the officer brought his passport back. Others asked us what had happened and were hopeful since our experience hadn’t been unpleasant. Twenty minutes later our officer came to the lobby and handed my friend his passport as she smiled and wished him luck.

A day later we read stories of all the Middle Easterners who were less fortunate. Many were taken into custody in San Diego and Los Angeles and across the U.S. We heard stories of old men, of 16-year-old boys pulled from their mother’s arms. I couldn’t help wondering if my friend’s situation was made easier having a U.S. citizen at his side. His papers had been in order, yet according to some of the reports we read, so had many others who sat in jails after their registration. We even heard that due to lack of space here on the west coast, some were bussed to Arizona.

When I reflect on that day, I have mixed feelings.

I remember photos of Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, mothers and grandmothers in Argentina who carried signs of missing children and grandchildren taken by a government whose supposed intent was to wipe out “left-wing terrorism.” In the process, thousands of people disappeared without a trace.

I also think of Japanese concentration camps during World War II that serve as an embarrassing reminder of what we in the West are capable of. I can’t help a certain degree of anger at what I consider a thinly veiled excuse for government-sponsored racism. In the last year it’s become a disease in our country, and ignorance by the majority of Americans allows our government to act against citizens and immigrants who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim, in a way that violates the rights we so righteously defend.

Isadora Malon is a freelance writer.

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