Fighting the War at Home : TARGETED BY AUTHORITIES, IMMIGRANTS ARE ORGANIZING TO DEFEND THEIR RIGHTS

Article excerpt

The "Stop the War" chant didn't take off--though a few stalwarts did give it a try. The several hundred protesters who assembled in Manhattan's Union Square on Martin Luther King Day spoke--sometimes literally--a different language. "In quilab, zindu baad," they chanted heartily, gathering momentum. "INS murdabaad!" Despite miserably wet weather, this Urdu chant--"Long Live Freedom! Down With the INS!"--a variant on a slogan historically used in anticolonialist struggles, cheered the crowd.

The demonstrators, many from Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a New York City community-based organization of poor and working-class South Asians, were protesting one of the most chilling aspects of the Bush Administration's "war on terrorism"--the war on immigrants. ("Desi," a popular word in a number of South Asian languages, including Bengali and Hindi, means South Asian.) The rally focused on the Immigration and Naturalization Service's post-September 11 refusal to reveal who it is detaining and on what charges; since the World Trade Center attacks, the INS and the FBI have held over 1,200 immigrants, mostly of Middle Eastern or South Asian (especially Pakistani) descent. "Our communities have been devastated," says Monami Maulik, a DRUM organizer. "Many people have disappeared, and we do not use that word lightly."

Most of the Union Square protesters later boarded a bus to Passaic County Jail in New Jersey, where some 350 detainees were incarcerated, almost all without charges, and many without legal representation. Rally speakers included Uzma Naheed, a Pakistani woman whose husband and brother were taken from their New Jersey homes in the middle of the night by INS officers this past fall. Four months later, she had still not seen her brother and had no idea why either man was being held. "No one is telling us what is going on," she said tearfully. Like many families of detainees, she and her children have been left without any financial support, and she has had to sell her belongings to buy food. Protest organizers presented an admirably specific demand: The INS must hold public meetings in Brooklyn and New Jersey, where most of the detainees' families live.

Brooklyn's South Asians, like many immigrants nationwide, have fallen afoul of the government's new antiterrorism campaign, and have been attempting to fight back. While many have made common cause with peace groups--who oppose war both at home and overseas--most have avoided criticizing US foreign policy too harshly and have instead focused on the immediate threats to their own liberties.

In addition to the secret detentions, immigrants have been trying to bring police--and public--attention to the violence that has been directed at people who look Middle Eastern or South Asian. Nahar Alam, the Bangladeshi-born founder of Andolan, a South Asian low-wage-workers' organization in Brooklyn, describes a recent brutal assault in Queens: A Muslim man was beaten "like an animal" by a crowd of ten men. He then found a police car--but the police laughed at him and drove off, leaving him at the mercy of his assailants, who returned. "He's not the only one," says Alam. She's right: South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT) reported 645 acts of hate-related violence nationwide--including several homicides--in the week after September 11 alone. The real numbers are probably higher, but as Alam and other activists point out, most victims, especially undocumented immigrants, are afraid to call police. She adds, "Women who never wear Western dress are wearing it. I am scared myself to wear this," pointing to her own traditional head-to-toe covering.

Meanwhile, on campuses around the country, activists are attempting to stem a backlash against immigrant students, who were quickly demonized when it was revealed that some of the September 11 hijackers were in the United States on student visas. In January, at the City University of New York, six students and five professors fasted--and sat, in the cold, in front of the Board of Trustees' headquarters--for three days to protest the administration's move to charge out-of-state tuition to undocumented students. …