Wish You Weren't Here

 Writer:

Gary Younge

 Source:

The Guardian

 Date:

Monday, July 14, 2003

Gary Younge
gary younge

America just loves immigration - it's immigrants who aren't popular. As Muslims are now finding out
 

nsar Mahmood wanted to give his family, back in Pakistan, an impression of his new life in Hudson, New York. So in between pizza deliveries he drove to Hudson's highest point to get a good view of the mountains and asked one of two guards on duty to take his picture with the sunset as a backdrop. Also in the frame was Hudson's water treatment plant. It was October 2001, at the height of the anthrax scare. While one guard took his picture the other phoned the police. 

By the time Mahmood got back to Domino's, where he worked, the police were waiting for him. A few days later tests on the water proved clear and checks showed all his papers were in order. But the police had also discovered that he had paid the first month's rent and car insurance for a Pakistani couple who were in the country illegally. Mahmood told the Washington Post he had no idea that their immigration status was in question. He pleaded guilty to harbouring illegal immigrants - a charge usually reserved for smugglers at the border - and is now in federal detention awaiting deportation. 

It's a long way from a snapshot of dusk on the Hudson, but Mahmood's fate is a more accurate impression of life for many Musilm immigrants in America right now than any photo he might have sent back home. Since September 11, they have been the principal casualties of the erosion of civil rights in America. Their treatment not only highlights the distortions in America's self-image as a nation always ready to embrace immigrants, but also serves as a metaphor for the war on terror - callous and futile, high in human costs and low in its impact on terrorism. 

Some, like Mahmood, have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others have been the victims of a systematic trawl as men without a green card from Arab and predominantly Muslim countries regarded as potential sources of terrorism have had to register, and then be fingerprinted and photographed by the immigration service. 

Around 82,000 were registered in immigration offices across the country - around 13,000 now face deportation. "Families who came to the United States to realise the American dream who chose to abide by the law and to cooperate with the immigration authorities, have been singled out on the basis of their ethnicity and religion," says Emira Habiby Browne, executive director of the Arab-American family support centre based in Brooklyn. 

In a review of the FBI's methods in rounding up immigrants, the inspector general of the US department of justice, found: "The FBI made little attempt to distinguish between immigrants who had possible ties to terrorism and those who were swept up in the investigation." 

In Europe, where immigration continues to represent a threat to the mythology of racial and ethnic cohesion, such a state of affairs would be appalling but by no means aberrant. On most of the continent the word "immigrant" serves as a code for non-white people, regardless of where they were born, and immigration is an indelible, eternal blot on the political landscape. 

It was a code that British popular culture has long since abandoned and which British political culture, thanks largely to the home secretary, David Blunkett, has recently revived. "Those who come into our home should accept [our] norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere," he said, referring to the racial disturbances in Bradford, as though the young British-born Asians who took to the streets were anywhere other than home. 

The US, however, thrives on an altogether more optimistic view of immigration into which the recent treatment of immigrants fits less easily - the notion not only that it is the home of successive generations of immigrants but the model for successful immigration itself. It is an image that goes back to the Mayflower carrying asylum seekers in search of a land where they could practise their religion, and stands high atop the nation's most coveted symbol, the Statue of Liberty, laying down its challenge to the rest of the world: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." 

Immigration in America concerns not just the continuous arrival of new people to its shores, but the constant presence of dominant cultural myths within its borders. It is central to the notions of personal reinvention, economic meritocracy, ethnic diversity and class fluidity that lie at the core of the American dream. 

In a nation where almost everybody lays claim to an identity from elsewhere - be they Mexican, Italian, Irish or Dominican - swearing-in ceremonies, citizenship classes and language tests are invoked not as a threat, as they were in Britain, but a rite of passage. 

But if the current treatment of Muslim immigrants contradicts the mythology of American immigration through the ages, it confirms the reality. For the debate in the US has rarely been about whether immigration itself is good or bad, but whether certain immigrants at certain times are good or bad. The context has chosen different immigrants for different reasons at different times - but the essential theme has always remained the same. 

During the mid-19th century, the signifier was religion, and those in the firing line were primarily Irish Catholics. In 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, it was race and the Chinese. During the second world war it was nationality and the Japanese. Throughout the 90s, the focus ranged from access to public services to language usage, but the primary targets were always Hispanics, particularly in California. 

Throughout, even as certain sections of immigrants were being scapegoated, the influx continued, with each episode regarded as an isolated exception from the general rule. Since September 11, the issue has been terrorism, the focus has been on Muslim and Arab immigrants and the logic has been the same. With investigations that have been discriminatory in their conception and indiscriminate in their application, they have been able to make the leap from Mohammad Atta to Ansar Mahmood only because they started from the principle that all immigrants from Muslim countries are potential terrorists. 

Anti-Arab discrimination is not a new problem in America. But since Septem ber 11 it has greatly intensified. Alienation, racism, miscarriages of justice are just a few of the things that have already emerged as a result of this process. The one thing it has not achieved is a conviction for terrorism and it has netted only a handful of terrorists suspects believed to be in single figures. 

As such, the Muslim and Arab experience may contradict the national myth about immigration, but it is consistent with the nation's record in the war on terror. They have been the victims of a pre-emptive strike on their civil rights. Like Iraq and weapons of mass destruction the authorities have identified the guilty in the hope that they will find evidence, and in the knowledge that even if they don't the damage will already have been done. Presumption, prejudice, secrecy, expediency - the principles that guide the war abroad driving the war at home. 

A longer version of this piece appears in Index on Censorship 
 

g.younge@guardian.co.uk

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