WASHINGTON: Around New York City in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, as an eerie quiet settled over ground zero, South Asian and Arab men started vanishing.
Soon, more than 1,000 were arrested in sweeps across the metropolitan area and nationwide.
Most were charged only with overstaying visas and deported back to their home countries. But before that happened, many were held in detention for months, with little outside contact, especially with their families. Others would live with a different anxiety, forced to sign what was effectively a Muslim registry with no idea what might follow.
While the remembrances and memorials of 9/11′s 20th anniversary slip into the past, hundreds of Muslim men and their families face difficult 20-year anniversaries of their own.
In the attacks’ aftermath, the immigrant advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving, or DRUM, anticipated a rise in hate crimes and harassment. So it set up a hotline and placed flyers primarily in South Asian neighborhoods.
“We started getting calls from women saying, ‘Last night, law enforcement busted into our apartment and took my husband and my brother.’ Children calling us and saying, ‘My father left for work four days ago and he hasn’t come home, and we haven’t heard anything,’” executive director Fahd Ahmed recalls.
“There were people who were just disappearing from our communities,” he says, “and nobody knew what was happening to them or where they were going.”
They were, according to the 9/11 Commission report, arrested as “special interest” detainees. Immigration hearings were closed, detainee communication was limited and bond was denied until the detainees were cleared of terrorist connections. Identities were kept secret.
A review conducted by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General said the Justice Department’s “hold until cleared” policy meant a significant percentage of the detainees stayed for months despite immigration officials questioning the legality of the prolonged detentions and even though there were no indications they were connected to terrorism. Compounding that, they faced “a pattern of physical and verbal abuse” particularly at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. Conditions were, the report said, “unduly harsh.”
Detainees were swept up a myriad of ways, the report said. Three were stopped on a traffic violation and found with school drafting plans. Their boss explained they were working on a construction project and were supposed to have them, but authorities arrested and detained them anyway. Another was arrested because he seemed too anxious to buy a car.
Although many of those who were held had come into the U.S. illegally or overstayed visas, “it was unlikely that most if not all” would have been pursued if not for the attack investigation, the report said.
The “blunderbuss approach” of rounding up Muslims and presuming there would be terrorists among them was “pure racism and xenophobia in operation,” says Rachel Meeropol, senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who filed a lawsuit in 2002 on behalf of several of the men and continues to fight for additional plaintiffs to this day.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that it didn’t work,” Meeropol says. “Of course, what it did do was destroy whole communities and not to mention the lives of all the individuals rounded up.”
Yasser Ebrahim, an original plaintiff in the lawsuit, was at a shop in his neighborhood and noticed people intently watching the television. “I saw these images on the screen, and for a moment there was like some kind of a movie or something,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
He had been in the United States since 1992 and enjoyed his life. “I loved everything about America,” he said by Zoom from Egypt. As a teenager, even before arriving, he idolized American popular culture. “The food, the music, the movies, everything was so attractive, and everybody wanted to go to America,” he said.
After learning the hijackers were Muslims, he reassured his mother in a phone call that he and his brother would be fine. In other countries there might be problems, but America was a place of legal rights, where evidence mattered, he said. “We still had faith in the system in America at that point,” he said.
That ended on Sept. 30, 2001. Several federal agents showed up at his door in Brooklyn. He says he had requested an extension of his tourist visa, but agents told him they had no record of it. He thought the matter would be straightened out quickly, or he would be deported. He stayed in custody until the following June.
For three months, his family did not know what happened to him or his brother. A neighbor ended that mystery, explaining they had been taken into custody. Even then there was little outside communication. And some officers at the facility in Brooklyn were physically and verbally abusive. It was months before he saw his brother. “There was the general feeling that we’re going to be here forever,” he says.
Ebrahim’s brother was deported first. When Ebrahim was finally allowed to leave, he was given clothes several sizes too big, including pants he had to physically hold up with his hands.
He was placed on a plane without knowing the destination. On board, he realized no one looked Egyptian. The plane went to Greece and after spending a night in the custody of Greek authorities, he boarded a flight for Cairo, with no money. Another Egyptian, deported from Texas, gave him $20 to eat and contact his family to let them know he was home.
In 2009 he and four others, including his brother, reached a $1.26 million settlement on the lawsuit. Though not an apology, he says, “we thought it was sort of admitting that something wrong was done to us.”
Umair Anser was 14 as he and math classmates watched on a classroom television as the twin towers fell.
“You can’t accept something like that happening on American soil,” Anser says. “You know you’re safe in the U.S. … but then something like that happens and you really question how safe you are, especially when you’re that young.”
His father, Anser Mehmood, left Pakistan in 1988 during a time of political turmoil, looking toward the safety and promise of the United States. He worked as a truck driver and sometimes drove a taxi. The family settled in Bayonne, New Jersey.
Anser came home from school on Oct. 3, 2001, and found his mom nearly catatonic, his home ransacked and the family’s computers and his father gone. His uncle had disappeared in a similar way days earlier.
“We didn’t know where our father was for the next three months,” Anser says.
He was, it turned out, in solitary confinement — in the special housing unit of Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, the same place chronicled by the inspector general, Anser says. When the family did see him again, they encountered a different man. “He was so weak … I couldn’t see my dad like that,” Anser says. “It was very emotional for me.”
For the remainder of his detention, he wrote letters, talked about the difficulties and told his family to be strong and support their mother. “He told us, ‘Allah is there for us. He will be the provider; everything will be OK.’ I think he had to give us hope so we didn’t lose hope.”
Anser and his brothers attended protests with their mother organized by DRUM. But with their father gone, there was no financial support for the family. The sons were bullied at school; neighbors harassed them at home. It became untenable and the family returned to Pakistan, leaving Mehmood behind, in jail.
“My mother was extremely heartbroken to leave the country because she knew the amount of effort and the amount of work that my father put in to make everything happen for us,” Anser says.
Mehmood eventually pleaded guilty to working with an unauthorized Social Security number and was sentenced to eight months in prison. He was transferred to Passaic County Jail before finally being deported on May 10, 2002, to Pakistan, where the family now lives.
For Sultana Jahangir, there was a different anxiety.
It was one that intensified when her husband, Mohammed Alam, was called to register through the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, a government policy introduced in 2002 as part of the war on terror. Some would call it a “Muslim registry.”
It required all noncitizen males 16 or older from 25 countries to register with the U.S. government. The only country among them that did not have an Arab or Muslim majority was North Korea.
Jahangir, now living in Toronto with her husband and family, came to the U.S. in 1994 from Bangladesh to visit her sister. During their stay, her sister’s husband died unexpectedly, and Jahangir and her husband stayed to help.
“We worked like crazy … many days, I wouldn’t see the sun,” she says. “The evening comes, I don’t see the sunset. My life was stuck in a dark place.”
They worked quietly this way for years — Jahangir at a cafe, Alam driving taxis — all the while trying to apply for political asylum.
In the days that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, Jahangir’s co-worker called her “Bin Laden’s sister.” Shortly after, her manager let her go. She struggled to find work after that. “Nobody,” she says, “wanted to hire a Muslim then.”
Meanwhile, she and her family would hear reports of Muslim men being taken off the street by law enforcement without explanation, and they worried for Alam.
When Alam responded to the call to register for NSEERS, he was held for hours and then released with a deportation order. Paranoid about what might follow, he retreated from public life. “It didn’t feel safe for him to go out and drive the taxi,” Jahangir says. “We discouraged him from going out. He stayed home with the children and I had to take on more responsibility.”
Ultimately, the family was able to avoid being deported to Bangladesh by arranging a visa for Canada.
In the end, NSEERS resulted in no terrorism convictions. It was suspended in 2011 and completely dissolved in 2016. It did, however, land more than 13,000 boys and men in deportation proceedings.
Two decades later, no terror attack in the U.S. has come close to the scale of Sept. 11. The most serious threats have come from lone wolves. The most public of threats have been from Americans, not foreigners.
Joshua Dratel, co-chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ national security committee, says the detentions are a foundational piece of something troubling — an acceptance of more invasive law enforcement for protection from terrorists.
Searches at airports, in buildings, even on subways — “these are things that were once exceptional and extraordinary, and now the exception has become the norm. I think that has put us in a position of vulnerability to more of it and a more malevolent version of it.”
Shirin Sinnar, a law professor at Stanford University, says the extreme measures taken after 9/11 have been normalized to the point that “now we don’t even talk about them. They’ve just become part of the kinds of surveillance and deprivation of rights and profiling that we expect to see.”
The positive, she says: More people seem willing to challenge that.
To a degree, that is true. Attitudes have trended toward people being more wary of the government’s counterterrorism efforts. But a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that a majority of Americans, 54%, still believe it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice rights and freedom to fight terrorism.
The long-running lawsuit in which additional plaintiffs were added after the first five were awarded a settlement has continued. It has ricocheted through the court system with mixed results. In 2017 the Supreme Court threw out parts of the suit but allowed one part to stand, sending it back to lower courts. Last month, a federal district court judge in Brooklyn dismissed the lawsuit.
Meeropol says the initial settlement was proof that the plaintiffs had a compelling case. She says no decision has been made yet on an appeal. That leaves a striking fact: Nearly 20 years later, no individuals have been held accountable for how the detainees were treated, she says.
For the families marking an ignominious anniversary, the question is basic and broad: What is different?
Jahangir runs a South Asian women’s rights organization in Toronto, continuing her fight against systemic racism and discrimination. She misses seeing her sister but has no desire to step foot in America again. “I look at my 10 years in the U.S. as a black hole for me, (and) after 9/11, I found out that this is not a place to live.”
Ebrahim, now 49 and owner of a company that provides coding and other outsource services to other companies, shared Jahangir’s anger after he returned to Egypt. But two decades later, he would consider bringing his teenage son to New York City to see sights and sounds that he found “charming.”
His advice for U.S. citizens: “Never twist the Constitution again. What makes America America is the freedom, and the Constitution.”