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RIGHTS: U.S. Gov’t Discriminates Against Muslim Immigrants – Study

Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON, Apr 24 2007 (IPS) - U.S. immigration practices towards thousands of Muslim immigrants over the past six years received a searing indictment in a study released Tuesday, accusing the U.S. government of turning immigration institutions into security stations that penalise individuals because of their religion and national origin.

According to the New York University School of Law’s Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) the government is illegally delaying the naturalisation applications of immigrants by profiling individuals it perceives to be Muslim and subjecting them to an indefinite series of security checks.

The report states unequivocally that “the government has folded immigration bodies into national security institutions.”

The 63-page study says that the U.S. government, once ostensibly a world champion of democracy and human rights, has almost legalised a policy of discrimination against those immigrants, much along the lines of police states that Washington used to campaign against when it wanted to polish its image during the Cold War.

The report is one of the first serious documentations of abuse against Muslims in the United States since 9/11, the terrorist attacks on Sep. 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, which the United States blamed on Muslim extremists.

It comes as the country is caught up in a heated debate about immigration, with rising calls from conservative groups to stem the tide of people – the vast majority are from Mexico – arriving in the United States.

But that discussion has generally sidelined the predicament of Muslim immigrants. And the George W. Bush administration constantly cites security concerns and terrorism threats as reasons for the government’s strict measures, civil rights groups say.

“We tend to get stock lines; which is to say this is for reasons of national security,” said Tony Kutayli of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a Washington-based group lobbying U.S. authorities to end discriminatory programmes that target Arab and Muslim immigrants.

The report, “Americans on Hold: Profiling, Citizenship, and the ‘War on Terror'”, documents the impact of expanded security checks on the lives of those experiencing citizenship delays, often for years on end. Many have lived already in the United States lawfully for many years.

The study shows how Muslim applicants are greatly hindered in their ability to travel to visit ill relatives back in their country of origin, and often endure restrictions on their ability to work or even receive life-saving benefits.

An applicant from Algeria is quoted as saying: “I want to visit my sick mother in Algeria, but I cannot go there. I sent a letter from the doctor in Algeria to an attorney here to see if that would help expedite the background check, but my lawyer advises me not to travel there.”

Under the current system, profiled immigrants may be stopped, delayed, subjected to extended and unnerving security checks and even detained.

Airport officials are reportedly required to stop anyone with a “Muslim name” and name-check that individual against the list. Their computers throw up red flags even when names are merely similar to those found on the list.

Many immigrants have curtailed the extent to which they pray or worship publicly, and some have even changed their names – the very hallmark of their religious and cultural identity.

The report cites the example of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which required non-citizen males from 25 countries designated as threats to national security to formally register with the government. With the exception of North Korea, those countries have predominantly Arab or Muslim populations.

“Discriminatory profiling is illegal under international law and is a poor substitute for real intelligence work,” said Jayne Huckerby, CHRGJ research director.

“Taking years to identify individuals who are security threats does not make us safer. Ensuring timely and good faith completions of background checks will help the U.S. advance its national security goals,” she said.

An applicant quoted in the study, who is separated from his family and is awaiting citizenship, told CHRGJ: “I call my family every day and whenever I call them, my youngest daughter asks me, ‘Papa, when are you coming? When can I be there to meet you?’ I all the time carry the pictures of my family in my wallet and I am dying to see them.”

Another applicant stated, “The whole purpose of our struggling now is to get the whole family together – we’ve been divided for more than seven years. Every day is like more than a year for us now.”

Civil rights groups have long complained about the immigration pain that applicants from Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian nations have been suffering.

ADC, for example, complains about the “excessively long delays” in the processing of applications from men from Arab or Muslim men from those regions.

Federal law requires the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to grant or deny citizenship within 120 days of an applicant’s examination. USCIS has also set a policy goal of processing applications within six months from the time of filing.

But many Muslim applicants have been waiting in uncertainty, delaying family and business decisions as their papers were delayed for one, two or even three years.

“They are certainly discriminating against a specific part of the society and the community here in the United States. They have overstepped their boundaries, at least their stated boundaries for sure, with regard to the programme in general,” said ADC’s Kutayli.

A USCIS official didn’t immediately return IPS phone calls for comment.

The study quotes the USCIS Ombudsman as saying that prolonged name checks “significantly delay adjudication of immigration benefits for many applicants, hinder backlog reduction efforts, and rarely, if ever, achieve their intended national security objectives.”

The report urges the U.S. government to heed international law, open a probe into USCIS’s attempts to circumvent law by ordering offices not to schedule interviews until security clearances are completed, and to introduce anti-discrimination training for immigration and law enforcement officials.

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