Arab and Muslim Immigrants Under Fire

Interview with Hatem Abudayyeh of the Arab American Action Network


This article is from the July/August 2003 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the July/August 2003 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Since September 11, 2001, Arab and Muslim immigrants have confronted mounting discrimination at the hands of the U.S. government and private citizens. Individuals the Department of Homeland Security identifies as "potential terrorists" are subject to state monitoring, detention, deportation, special reporting requirements, and "voluntary" interviews. Arabs and Muslims have also been victims of physical and verbal attacks and targets of job and educational discrimination. Such problems have only intensified since the war in Iraq.

Grassroots organizations across the country are mobilizing to combat racism and oppression with the goal of uniting Arab communities and resisting these changes. Hatem Abudayyeh is executive director of one such organization, the Arab American Action Network, a Chicago-based community organization that provides youth and adult services, advocacy, educational support, arts programming, leadership development, and organizing training for the area's Arab population. — Megan Harrington

Q: In what new ways has the U.S. government targeted Arabs and Muslims for oppression and discrimination since September 11 and the war in Iraq?

ABUDAYYEH: Starting with the USA Patriot Act, draconian measures and indiscriminate detentions and deportations have destabilized and criminalized Arab communities across the United States. [The USA Patriot Act, passed by Congress six weeks after September 11, expands the government's authority to spy on its own citizens and permits detention and deportation of non-citizens suspected of supporting groups the government considers "terrorist" organizations. —Eds.] Also since September 11, U.S.-based Arab and Islamic organizations that provide humanitarian assistance to the people of war-torn nations including Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq have been accused of "supporting terrorism" and summarily closed down by the Justice Department. Prominent leaders have been arrested, including Rabih Haddad, co-founder of the Global Relief Foundation. Haddad has been in jail—first in Michigan, now in Illinois—since December 2001. Neither he nor the other detainees have been officially charged with any crime.

The Justice Department's new "special registration" requirements target Muslim and Arab men. In addition, the FBI has conducted around 5,000 "voluntary interviews" throughout Arab and Muslim communities. Since the war in Iraq began, still more Iraqis were called in for "voluntary" interviews.

Q: What are these voluntary interviews and have they led to arrests?

ABUDAYYEH: We know from discussions with the National Lawyers Guild that some of the questions the FBI asks relate to activism and organizing. These include "Who are the leaders of anti-war organizing in your mosques or your community centers?" and "Are there any political organizations that are functioning in your community?" Arab anti-war work, along with the anti-war movement as a whole, has been subject to the widespread "criminalization of dissent." But Arab antiwar activism is uniquely subject to aggressive state monitoring, intimidation, and threat of detention or deportation.

Exactly zero arrests related to "terrorism" have resulted from these interviews. Seventeen arrests were made altogether (for minor, technical immigration violations).

Q: What has been the scale of detentions and deportations nationwide?

ABUDAYYEH: The most accurate numbers are from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Arab American Institute (AAI), and other civil rights and research groups. There was an initial round-up just after 9/11. More detentions have followed, mostly resulting from the Justice Department's new special registration requirements. Over 1,200 Arabs and Muslims are still in detention today. Many thousands have been detained for various periods. Some of those were deported, but others released. Only a tiny percentage of the detainees have been charged with having any relationship with "terrorists," but even that evidence is kept secret from the defendants and their lawyers.

Q: Who among Arabs and South Asians is most vulnerable to detention or deportation in terms of immigration status and class status? Are Arab elites more protected from detentions and deportations?

ABUDAYYEH: The vast majority of the men who have been detained are immigrants who do not yet hold permanent residency status—"green cards"—or naturalized citizenship. So these are people who have nonpermanent visas of various types.

The Justice Department's new "special registration" policy targets male visa-holders from 20 different countries, 19 of which have a majority Arab or Muslim citizenry. It specifically demands that they register with the Department of Homeland Security and be fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed. Over 16,000 of these men, mostly those who have overstayed their visas, face deportation proceedings.

I don't know whether Arab elites are more protected from deportations and detentions, but it is true that most of the Arab elites are permanent residents or citizens and therefore have not had to register under the new "special registration" policy, which only applies to men older than 16 considered "visitors." And it is also true that the vast majority of those detained and deported are poor people struggling to support their families here in the United States.

Q: How widespread is the problem of colleges giving information on Arab students to the government?

ABUDAYYEH: Throughout the country, universities and community colleges have been providing information about their international students to the Department of Justice and the FBI. The Patriot Act expanded the government's authority to access financial and academic records of international students without their knowledge. Some universities have complied with government pressure for information, and others have not—because of administrators' personal convictions, or because of student and faculty protests. Soon the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEViS) program—which was authorized through an earlier piece of legislation—will begin tracking the 500,000-plus foreign students holding student (F-1, M-1, or J-1) visas. The system was supposed to be mandatory as of January 30, 2003 for all institutions that accept these foreign students. But SEViS has not yet gone into effect because the INS—now called the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services—is still training its inspectors and officials at colleges and technical schools. SEViS will mostly be used to make sure that students are fulfilling the terms of their respective visas—that they're full-time students and passing their classes. But it may also require professors to monitor the activities, inside and outside the classroom, of students in certain fields of study, as well as Arab and Muslim students in other fields. It will help the government essentially "spy" on foreign students.

Meanwhile there has been an astonishing 50% drop in the U.S. government's acceptance of visitors' visa applications from Arab and Muslim countries, according to research compiled from INS data.

Q: What are the economic effects on families when a father or son is deported?

ABUDAYYEH: One man who owns a restaurant on the southwest side of Chicago, and was detained for over four months, has a wife and four children. The restaurant was closed for the entire time he was detained, and his family had to apply for public aid benefits to be able to economically survive. This is a specific story, and luckily this man returned to his family and his business, but for the deported heads of household, their families have financially suffered greatly, and are reaching out to other family members, community centers, mosques, and welfare programs for assistance.

Q: Have other types of discrimination—in schools and on the street—increased?

ABUDAYYEH: We have heard anecdotally of a number of incidents in Chicago from high school students that we work with. They have been dealing with faculty and administrators that racially, ethnically, and religiously profile them in their classrooms, using broad misrepresentations of their culture and religion in ways that marginalize them.

Also, there have been racist attacks on mosques and churches, including St. John's, an Assyrian church on the far northeast side of Chicago, as well as dozens of incidents of physical attacks on Arab and Muslim men, youth, and women—especially against females who wear the traditional Muslim headdress, the hijab. One woman was just walking down the street with her baby in a stroller. A white male approached her, yelled something indecipherable about "Arabs" and "terrorism," and then ripped the hijab off of her head.

Q: What is the role of your organization in dealing with discrimination?

ABUDAYYEH: We have played a leading role in trying to document cases of detention and deportation, as well as trying to support the affected families financially and legally. In April, we organized over 40 volunteers to spend nine hours a day at the local INS office and provide information, legal assistance, and support to the men who were forced to go to the "special registration" interviews. We are in the process of compiling the personal information about these men, finding out how many were detained or deported, and establishing a campaign to resist these policies and procedures. We have also done numerous presentations about the effects of war and racism on the Arab and Muslim community in schools, universities, workplaces, churches, and community centers.

Q: Do you see your struggle as connected to struggles for economic justice?

ABUDAYYEH: We have always tried to include a class analysis in our work around racism and the war, especially in offering an analysis of U.S. imperialism and its goals of hegemony over the Arab world and beyond. The same system that oppresses workers and poor people in this country has been doing the same in the Arab world, Africa, Latin America, and Asia, draining those regions' natural and human resources to profit multi-national corporations and the American ruling class.

Q: How have Arab or South Asian workers involved in labor organizing been affected by fear of detention and deportation?

ABUDAYYEH: We do not have too much information about Arab or South Asian workers, but the undocumented Mexican and Filipino workers that we know and work with have always had a fear of detention and deportation, and now this fear is much more acute.

The Department of Homeland Security has conducted two prominent raids on workers in the Chicago area in the past few months—at O'Hare Airport (called "Operation Tarmac") and the Sears Tower. Both targeted undocumented Latino, mostly Mexican, workers, and a number of them will be subjected to deportation proceedings. The proceedings are very expensive for the accused, due to lawyers' fees and the length of proceedings, and we have found, both from anecdotal evidence and from our allies in the immigrant rights world, that many families are choosing to leave the United States rather than contest the deportation orders. Families that are barely making a living in the States are being forced to return to their home countries and even more brutal economic hardships there.

Q: What can be done in this climate?

ABUDAYYEH: Part of what needs to be done is to connect our issues to the working class in this country, especially in resisting the U.S. war drive and explaining the effects of a war economy on basic safety-net social programs here in the United States. Also, it is very important to connect these anti-Arab and anti-Muslim attacks with the historical racial profiling and anti-immigrant policies of the U.S. government. A movement for true racial and social justice must include the unity of the multinational working class with the oppressed nationalities of this country.

Megan Harrington is a student at Emmanuel College and a former D&S intern.