Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Detroit Doings: Detroit-Area Arabs First to Request Letter Rather Than Surprise FBI Visit

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Detroit Doings: Detroit-Area Arabs First to Request Letter Rather Than Surprise FBI Visit

Article excerpt

Detroit Doings: Detroit-Area Arabs First to Request Letter Rather Than Surprise FBI Visit

Roxane Assaf is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.

"Michigan's Arab community has an historically good relationship with law enforcement and federal officials, so it is no wonder we got our way with the letters," said Imad Hamad, the Midwest regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). Hamad was referring to the fact that, of the 5,000 Arab and Muslim men--aged 18-33 and on temporary visas from countries considered friendly to al-Qaeda--named for investigation nationwide. Those in the Detroit area received letters from their local U.S. Attorney inviting them for an interview, instead of a surprise visit from the FBI. Those approximately 560 individuals--more than 10 percent of the nationwide total--thus had some time to prepare, thanks to Hamad and the southeastern Michigan chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and several Arab-American organizations.

Nor is it any wonder that Hamad fielded 150 calls from the media in less than a week after the personable community leader succeeded in getting special treatment from the U.S. government. Attorney General John Ashcroft's eight-page memorandum Nov. 9 to all United States attorneys and members of the Anti-Terrorism Task Forces spelled out the objectives of the "interview project" to be completed by Dec. 21, with lists of names provided to each office. While the knocking on doors was to begin immediately, Detroit-area visa holders who received letters were to call in and schedule an interview by Dec. 4.

"We were reassured by two points," said Hamad. "The United States Department of Justice said these 5,000 people are not suspects and shouldn't be treated as such. And secondly, the interviews are completely voluntary."

The sense of specialness began to fade, however, as news spread about the kinds of questions Ashcroft wanted answered and as people began feeling singled out. Before the interviewing began, hundreds of unnamed individuals already had been taken into custody without charges, most of whom, it is assumed, are Arab. People's confidence, therefore, already was shaken. "They say it's an `invitation' to be interviewed," Hamad noted, "but when you look at the line of questioning, it's in the style of a criminal investigation. These are students, tourists and young workers. They say they don't trust that their words won't be misinterpreted and used against them."

And some add that they left their own countries expecting to be free of a system where interrogation, harassment and detainment without charge are de rigueur. "It's bad if you're not a citizen," Hamad said. "They're planning to go back to their countries when their visas expire. So, they are worried their countrymen will say that they were collaborators with the U.S. government against their own nationalities."

Brenda Abdelall, president of the Arab Student Association at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, agreed. "Many said they had nothing to hide, anyway. But I would hate to see individuals implicate themselves. They have to know the resources they have at hand."

Hosting on-campus lectures by immigration lawyers and rights activists and distributing flyers from the ACLU in English and Arabic, Abdelall and student leaders at other schools prepared the students who fit the profile for what they could do to protect themselves while cooperating with officials. Paul Saba, president of the University of Michigan's student chapter of ADC, urged students to make use of pro bono legal counsel offered by the ACLU. Saba reported, however, that, despite the availability of support, some parents were not appeased. Knowing, too, that campus hate crimes were on the rise, they called their children home to the Middle East.

While the U. …

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