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Yave Begnet

Scapegoating Non-citizens Produces Few Measurable National Security Gains

Recently the Washington Post and the NY Times published stories investigating 83 immigrant deaths in detention between 2003 and 2008. Some of the deaths were easily preventable. Family members told of loved ones suffering serious medical problems that went ignored and untreated until it was too late.

Via the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), I got word last week that Senators Lieberman, Brownback, Kennedy, and Hagel had introduced legislation to ensure humane treatment for asylum seekers and other detained immigrants. The "Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act" (S. 3114) would mandate improved medical care in detention and require careful reporting and investigation of all deaths that occur in detention facilities. Passing this act would be a helpful first step in addressing the problems that have come to light, but would represent only a beginning, not an end point.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene that Congress and the executive branch could not lawfully strip prisoners in Guantanamo of the right of habeas corpus, the right to federal court review of the legality of detention.

On the heels of this seminal decision, Tom Lasseter at McClatchy brings us an important story detailing how many of those imprisoned at Guantanamo are, in all likelihood, completely innocent.

An eight-month McClatchy investigation in 11 countries on three continents has found that Akhtiar was one of dozens of men — and, according to several officials, perhaps hundreds — whom the U.S. has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments. . . .

This unprecedented compilation shows that most of the 66 were low-level Taliban grunts, innocent Afghan villagers or ordinary criminals. At least seven had been working for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and had no ties to militants, according to Afghan local officials. In effect, many of the detainees posed no danger to the United States or its allies.

The investigation also found that despite the uncertainty about whom they were holding, U.S. soldiers beat and abused many prisoners.

So what links these two scandals: immigrant deaths in detention and wrongful imprisonment of so-called terrorists? There are three connected points that form the pattern we’ve seen under the Bush administration of scapegoating non-citizens for political gain.

1. Noncitizens are treated as a threat to citizens, and hence not deserving of respectful or humane treatment.

In the climate of fear and defensiveness that prevailed after 9/11, the government worked to satisfy the public’s psychological needs to assign blame and fight back against the perceived bad guys. The government found convenient targets—often victims of tribal politics and petty score-settling near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border—labeled them “enemy combatants” and threw them into a legal black hole while using torture to extract information of dubious quality.

On the home front, the government engaged in wide sweeps of non-citizen men of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent and locked up and deported thousands of them. In the proud tradition of Japanese-American internment and harassment of people of Italian and German descent during WWII, the government established a special registration program, NSEERS, for men deemed to be security threats solely on the basis of nationality.

2. Legal due process rights are severely abrogated, often resulting in wrong decisions based on faulty information.

From the McClatchy article:

Detainees at Guantanamo had no legal venue in which to challenge their detentions. The only mechanism set up to evaluate their status, an internal tribunal in the late summer of 2004, rested on the decisions of rotating panels of three U.S. military officers. The tribunals made little effort to find witnesses who weren't present at Guantanamo, and detainees were in no position to challenge the allegations against them.

Similarly, legal due process rights most citizens take for granted such as the right to court-appointed counsel, jury trial, and speedy trial, protection against self-incrimination and double jeopardy, and protection from unreasonable search and seizure are severely limited for non-citizens. This frequently leads to inaccurate findings and abuse of discretion in immigration court and administrative interviews.

3. Arrest and detention of non-citizens is primarily motivated by political rather than national security goals.

This consistent pattern of mistreatment of non-citizens has primarily served not national security, but political objectives. If Guantanamo had been about national security, the intake procedures would have been structured to capture and detain people who actually posed a threat to the U.S. Instead, the mandate was to fill up a prison with the so-called “worst of the worst” in an operation of which the broad contours were highly publicized but pesky details like the guilt or innocence of the detainees were kept secret. From the McClatchy article:

So far, the military commissions have publicly charged only six detainees — less than 1 percent of the more than 770 who've been at Guantanamo — with direct involvement in the 9-11 terrorist attacks; they dropped the charges in one case. Those few cases are now in question after the high court's ruling Thursday.

About 500 detainees — nearly two out of three — have been released.

Likewise, of the approximately 87,000 participants in the NSEERS program that was supposed to root out homegrown terror cells, no terrorism-related charges were brought by the government. These measures were taken to reassure an anxious public that action was being taken against the “bad guys,” which typically meant Muslim non-citizen men who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

These public policy failures have been thrown into sharp relief by the Bush administration, but the flawed assumptions on which they are based have long been key elements of U.S. foreign policy and immigration policy. Progressive voters should ask what an Obama administration would do to remedy the human rights abuses perpetuated by the U.S. government in the name of freedom and democracy.

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Posted at 6:43 AM, Jun 16, 2008 in Foreign Policy | Immigration
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