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Rights Groups Push New Bill to Protect Civil Liberties, Immigrants

by Christopher Getzan

Through collaboration with immigrant communities and lawmakers, the Rights Working Group has introduced legislation aimed at rolling back post-9/11 immigration policy

June 16, 2004 – A broad-based coalition of groups working for community, human, and civil rights are throwing their weight behind a bill set to be introduced in Congress today that aims to safeguard immigrants’ rights in the post-September 11, 2001 era.

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The bill, the Civil Liberties Restoration Act (CLRA) of 2004, is the latest in a spate of legislation introduced by lawmakers in the US House and Senate during the last three years to roll back or amend portions of controversial measures the government enacted after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The CLRA seeks to counteract portions of the now infamous USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, as well as numerous lesser known Executive Orders and rule changes dictated by government officials, which provide federal law enforcement agencies broad powers to bypass time-honored legal rules in order to spy on and detain citizens and immigrants in the name of fighting terrorism.

The Civil Liberties Restoration Act is a "measured first step" to anchor the country’s post-September 11 immigration policy to black-letter-law, said National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC) senior staff attorney Katherine Newell.

The bill would place strict limits on closed-door deportation hearings; provide for the establishment of an independent court within the Department of Justice (DOJ) for such hearings; make penalties commensurate with violations of immigration rules; and ensure suspects charged with national security surveillance evidence are informed of their charges and have access to the evidence against them. The bill would also require the government to periodically update Congress on any "data-mining" of people’s personal records to ensure the accuracy and clarity of such activities and amend the USA PATRIOT Act to limit secret investigations of private records until the government shows "reasonable" proof a suspect has connections to terrorists.

While rights groups have continued to pressure the Department of Homeland security to make policy changes, the Congress and courts have not played the role set out for them in the Constitution.

Additionally, the CLRA would end the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a highly controversial immigrant tracking scheme the Justice Department began in 2002 that required males above the age of sixteen from certain countries or meeting other criteria to be fingerprinted, photographed, and questioned.

While government officials defended the USA PATRIOT Act and Executive Orders are as necessary anti-terrorism tools for law enforcement, civil liberties groups say there can be a better balance struck between national security and safeguarding the basic civil rights of US citizens and residents.

The CLRA is backed by the Rights Working Group (RWG), which includes Human Rights Watch, the Arab American Institute, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the National Council of La Raza. In the last two years, the Working Group has been collaborating with immigrant communities and lawmakers to reform immigration and civil rights policy.

Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Russ Feingold (D-WI), and Jon Corzine (D-NJ), will sponsor the bill in the Senate. Congressmen Howard Berman (D-CA) and William Delahunt (D-MA) will introduce the bill in the House.

According to Newell, the main focus of the CLRA is on changing immigration policy, which she describes as inconstant since at least 1996. "Our country for some time now has had mixed feelings about immigration, and how to deal with it," said Newell.

The terror attacks of 2001 did nothing to help, she said.

Newell said that shortly after the attacks, some of the government’s many policy changes were understandable. But in the case of immigration policy, she says the government "took a bad situation and made it worse in a very immediate way."

Indeed, the Justice Department has been reticent to reveal the standards by which it investigates or detains immigrants, persons who have overstayed their visas, and other foreign visitors.

In early 2002, there were 1,200 people held in the aftermath of September 11, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based human rights organization. However, HRW reports 760 of the detainees were actually held on immigration violations, and the rest as "material witnesses" to possible terror investigations or as criminal suspects unrelated to terrorism. Nevertheless, many were deported, sometimes to countries they either fled or had not been to in decades.

For non-citizens who were not deported, detention often meant months-long confinement without charge, "interference with the right to counsel," and harsh, sometimes physically abusive, conditions of confinement, according to a 2002 Human Rights Watch report. Even the Justice Department’s office of the Inspector General scolded the United States government for "questioning and detaining people based on little more than national origin or religion."

Immigration officials, in conjunction with the Justice Department, have also come under fire from immigrant and civil rights groups for the NSEERS program, which requires male immigrants from designated countries -- primarily countries in which Islam is the dominant religion -- to register at local immigration offices.

Rights groups have criticized the government for failing to provide immigrants accurate, timely and comprehensible information about how to comply with the requirements of NSEERS. The program has also been criticized for procedures resulting in due process violations, such as denial of access to lawyers and translators, as well as leading to the unlawful detention of immigrants.

Critics also say the government is using NSEERS to discriminate against immigrants on the basis of religion and national origin. It is widely seen in immigrant and civil rights circles as an effort on the part of the US government to round up and deport Muslim, Arab, and South Asian men.

"Eighty-seven thousand people [across the country] were voluntary registrants" in the program, said Nancy Talanian, director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC). The majority were from North Korea, Asia, and the Middle East, according to Talanian. It cost taxpayers millions, she said, but "it didn’t catch a single terrorist."

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in a December 2003 FAQ about changes to the program, responded to such criticism by asserting that while no one detained under the NSEERS program has been charged with terrorism, the DHS has "caught suspected terrorists."

Nevertheless, Talanian says NSEERS has created a culture of fear in immigrant communities and run up unnecessary security costs. Talanian’s BORDC, itself a national coalition of community groups across the country dedicated to preserving civil liberties after the Patriot Act, is also backing the passage of the CLRA as well as about a dozen other pieces of legislation aimed at reversing post-9/11 policies seen as violating civil and human rights.

In essence, Newell says, the CLRA is part of a "multi-year effort" of legislative maneuvers to restore the "checks and balances" role normally played by the other two branches of government.

Newell says that while rights groups have continued to work with and pressure the Department of Homeland security to make policy changes, the US Congress and the judicial branch have not played the role set out for them in the Constitution. "Scrutiny is essential to the process," she said.

Newell sees this legislation as an important catalyst for debate and discussion about the issues of security and liberty. "[People] sense something is not fair, and there’s a better way to do things," she said.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Christopher Getzan is a contributing journalist.

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