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WASHINGTON: Around New York City in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, as a strange calm settled above zero point, South Asian and Arab men began to disappear.
Soon more than 1,000 people were arrested in sweeps in the metropolitan area and across the country. Most were charged only for visa overruns and were sent back to their home countries. But before that happened, many were held for months, with little outside contact.
Twenty years later, in the aftermath of all the memories and memorials of the events of September 11, little attention has been paid to the plight of these men and their families, collateral damage from a horrific act of terrorism and the hysteria that ‘he begot.
Fahd Ahmed, executive director of immigrant advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving, said that after the attacks his group “began to receive calls from women saying:” Last night, the police did broke into our apartment and took my husband and brother away. Children call us and say, “My father left for work four days ago and he hasn’t come home, and we haven’t heard anything.
“There were people disappearing from our communities,” he says, “and no one knew what was happening to them or where they were going. “
They were, according to the 9/11 Commission report, arrested as “special interest” detainees. Immigration hearings were closed, communication between detainees was limited, and bail was refused until detainees were cleared of their links to terrorism. Identities were kept secret.
A review by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General said its policy meant that a significant percentage of detainees remained for months despite immigration officials questioning the legality of prolonged detentions and even if there was no indication that they were linked to terrorism.
Although many of those detained entered the United States illegally or exceeded their visas, they were unlikely to have been prosecuted without the investigation into the attack, according to the report.
The “blundered approach” of rounding up Muslims and assuming there would be terrorists among them was “pure racism and xenophobia,” said Rachel Meeropol, senior lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, who testified a complaint in 2002 on behalf of several of the men and continues to fight for other complainants to this day.
Yasser Ebrahim, an initial plaintiff in the lawsuit, was at a store in his New York neighborhood and noticed people watching television intently. “I saw these images on the screen, and for a while, it was sort of like a movie or something,” he says. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
He had been in the United States since 1992 and loved his life. “I loved everything about America,” he told Zoom from Egypt.
September 30, 2001. Federal agents arrived at his door in Brooklyn, New York. Ebrahim believed the immigration issue would be settled quickly, otherwise he would be deported. He remained in detention until the following June.
For three months, his family did not know what happened to him or his brother. Even then, there was little outside communication. And some officers at the Brooklyn establishment were physically and verbally abusive. It took months before he saw his brother. “There was a general feeling that we were going to be here forever,” he says.
Ebrahim’s brother was kicked out first.
When Ebrahim was finally cleared to leave, he was given clothes of several sizes that were too big and placed on a plane but without being told the destination. The plane went to Greece and after spending a night in the custody of Greek authorities, it boarded a flight to Cairo.
In 2009, he and four others, including his brother, reached a $ 1.26 million lawsuit settlement. While not an apology, he says, “we thought it was kind of admitting that something bad had been done to us.”
Umair Anser was 14 and living in Bayonne, New Jersey when he and his math classmates watched the Twin Towers fall on a classroom television.
Less than a month later, he returned from school and found a near-catatonic mother and a ransacked house. His father, Anser Mehmood, was gone, along with the family’s computers.
“We didn’t know where our father was for the next three months,” Anser said.
When the family saw him again, he was a different man. “He was so weak… I couldn’t see my dad like that,” Anser said.
With the departure of their father, there was no financial support for the family. Anser and his brothers were harassed at school; neighbors harassed them at home. It became untenable and the family returned to Pakistan, leaving Mehmood behind in prison.
Mehmood eventually pleaded guilty to working with an unauthorized social security number and was sentenced to eight months in prison. He was transferred to Passaic County Prison before being finally deported to Pakistan on May 10, 2002, where the family now lives.
Joshua Dratel, co-chair of the national security committee of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the detentions were a fundamental part of something troubling – an acceptance of more invasive law enforcement to protect oneself terrorists.
Searches in airports, in buildings, even in subways: “These are things that were once exceptional and extraordinary, and now the exception has become the norm. I think that put us in a vulnerable position to a bigger part and more malicious version of it. “
Shirin Sinnar, professor of law at Stanford University, says the extreme measures taken after 9/11 have been normalized to the point that “now we don’t even talk about it anymore.” They are just some of the types of surveillance, disqualification and profiling that we would expect. “
The positive, she says: more people seem willing to dispute this.
To some extent, this is true. Attitudes tend to make people more suspicious of government counterterrorism efforts.
But a recent poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that a majority of Americans, 54%, still believe it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice rights and freedom to fight terrorism.
The long-running lawsuit in which additional plaintiffs were added after the top five reached a settlement continued. It ricocheted through the justice system with mixed results, including a 2017 Supreme Court judgment. Last month, a Brooklyn Federal District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit.
Meeropol says the original settlement was proof that the plaintiffs had convincing arguments. She says no decision has yet been made on appeal. That leaves one striking fact: Almost 20 years later, no one has been held accountable for the way the detainees were treated, she said.
Ebrahim, now 49 and the owner of a business that provides outsourcing services, including coding, to other companies, has now said he would consider bringing his teenage son to New York City. to see sights and sounds he found “charming”.
But, he has a piece of advice for American citizens: “Never bend the Constitution again. What makes America America is freedom and the Constitution.