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American Muslim

The Willits News – Dec. 5, 2003

Deportations destroy lives

By Claudia Reed - Staff Writer

A regulation designed to catch terrorists succeeded primarily in tearing families apart, destroying careers, and relocating teenagers brought up in America to countries where they might not have a clue about the local language and culture.

That's the word from Sameena Faheem Sundas, the Executive Director of the American Muslim Voice, who spoke in Willits Monday night (Dec. 1, 2003) as a guest of the Mendocino County Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

Sundas was speaking of the "Special Registration" developed under the U.S.A. Patriot Act and administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS). The CIS replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Service in November 2002 and operates under the Homeland Security Department.

The registration, overturned last month, applied only to males 15 years old or older from 24 Moslem countries and North Korea, who had entered the United States after Sept. 10 or Sept. 30, 2002 (depending on country of origin). An exception was made for those who had applied for asylum before a certain date.

The targeted men and boys were required to report to the nearest "designated immigration office" to be fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed. Those shown to have committed even the slightest infraction of immigration laws, including an overstayed visa, an illegal job, or less than the number of credits necessary to qualify as a full-time student, were immediately taken into detention and then deported with or without family members, tuition reimbursement, or severance pay. Before the act was overturned, 13,000 men and boys had been sent back to their countries of origin.

Of the three men detained for further investigation, two were released for lack of evidence of terrorist connections and one remains in custody, Sundas said.

While the U.S. government was deporting students for having 16 rather than 18 credits in the name of preventing terrorism, Sundas pointed out, anyone with a driver's license could arrange to enroll in a flight school with no questions asked.

"So where is the safety? Where is the security?" she asked.

According to Maryland immigration attorney Sheela Murthy, the U.S. government almost automatically deports those caught with immigration violations, regardless of the country of origin. Most, however, are not caught unless they have been apprehended for a more serious crime. In many cases, she added, illegal immigrants (Mexican nationals, for example) are given the opportunity to become citizens under periodic work amnesty agreements.

The "Special Registration," she said, was unfairly and perhaps illegally applied only to those from certain nations. She added the government's defense was that plans called for extending the registration to all foreign nationals.

"They said it was going to be for everybody, but after they got the Moslems, they stopped," Murthy said.

Murthy's website, law@ murthy.com, posts a court finding that the equal protection clause under the U.S. Constitution can apply to U.S. Immigration law, even though the law deals with non citizens.

Deportation of Moslems, often preceded by detention, is more than just an early return home, Sundas said.

She offered the example of a father who suffered two heart attacks during nine months in prison without trial. His wife developed breast cancer at the same time and there was no one to care for their two children. Eventually he was released for lack of evidence connecting him with terrorism.

In another case, a husband was arrested for what were apparently minor immigration violations, leaving his pregnant wife without means of support. While her husband was in detention, she gave birth to a child with severe kidney problems. When he was deported (for immigration violations, not for terrorism), she remained in the United States without him, fearing their baby would not receive the necessary medical treatment in her homeland.

"The father never got to see his daughter and (the mother) has to go through all this by herself," Sundas said. "This is what our administration has done."

Even when whole families returned to Asia or the Middle East together, the impact was often devastating, she said. Sundas described teenagers who grew up in the United States suddenly finding themselves in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or Somalia without an ability to speak the language or understand the local customs.

Youths in the United States on a short-term basis, particularly college students, were also hit hard.

"Parents spend their life savings to send their kids (to school) here," Sundas said.

Someone deported for violation of immigration law, she added, can be prevented from reentering the country for 10 years, a gap that makes it unlikely a college program can be completed. Murthy says the range is five to 20 years, depending on the violation.

Even U.S. citizenship may not prevent Muslims from being targets of special scrutiny, Sundas said. She told the story of having been stopped and searched three times in a row at the same airport when plan changes called for plane changes. Selection of passengers for special screening is supposed to be a "random check," she said.

"I called the supervisor and asked whether the definition of 'random' had changed," she said. "Why don't they just be honest and say 'All Arabs and Muslims, this line. All others, this line?'"

Sundas' airport experience, while humiliating, was not as painful as that of a foreign student who was detained at an airport security center for three months while the government decided what to do with him. Reportedly, his "crime" was that he worked 20 hours a week to help support himself while in school.

The student apparently had no opportunity to complete his studies or to withdraw officially in order to retrieve his tuition. No attorney would take his case, Sundas said, because he technically wasn't on U.S. soil.

When the government decided the student wasn't a terrorist, he offered to leave the country voluntarily in order to avoid a 10-year return restriction. CIS officials refused.

"Why did they refuse?" Sundas asked.

Eventually an attorney was found to take and win the case and the youth went home without the time restrictions, but also without a degree to show for his years in school.

Now that Special Registration has ended, Sundas is working on bringing back the 13,000 students and others deported for minor violations. According to Murthy, that would probably take the passage of a new law.

Further information is available on Sundas' website,