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Who Are the Disappeared?

In the days and weeks immediately following September 11th, thousands of Arab and South Asian Muslim men were questioned by the FBI and local law enforcement about their connections to the tragic events, often on the flimiest of premises. Soon after, an alarming series of midnight raids and surprise sweeps by the INS in those same neighborhoods led to the detention of more than 700 men, initially picked up and placed in custody on standard immigration violations, who became known as the "special interest" detainees. The special interest in their cases came from the FBI and Department of Justice, which used secret evidence provisions written into the 1996 immigration reform laws and later expanded under the USA PATRIOT Act to keep these men in custody indefinitely without being able to know what the charges against or even the investigations into them concerned. Instead, the Department of Justice imposed a blanket gag order on the cases and anyone dealing with them, citing homeland security (the need to keep from the enemy the knowledge of the direction of investigations) as the reason to prevent the men's lawyers -- the only people with any consistent access to the detainees -- from even releasing their names to the press or public, and this decision was ultimately supported by the Supreme Court when the case reached there almost a year later. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice had released one piece of information about the detainees: a list of their nationalities. The general publc thus knew one thing about these men, and one thing only: they were Arab, they were Pakistani, they were Bangladeshi. They were probably Muslim. They were suspected of something. And as far as you could see, they had no families, no baggage of American lives and migrant histories. They had disappeared, literally into the detention centers of the INS's massive immigrant prison complex, and figuratively into the blank slates that the Attorney General had erased for them.

It was that moment which started me on the search for the disappeared whose trail you can follow in the How Do You See the Disappeared? section of this site. In that research, I was basically trying to answer two questions. My first question was: how did we arrive at this place? The glaring examples of the special interest cases, the abuses those men later suffered at the hands of guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, and the treatment of their lawyers by the Department of Justice merely conspired to shed light on a decade of systemic inequities and abuses suffered by immigrants at the hands of a bureaucracy ill-equipped for its own power, a private prison industry that profits from the deprivation of detainees, a court system that gives them no defenders, legislation that criminalizes them, and government programs like Special Registration (eerily foreshadowed by the DOJ special interest list) that institutionalize racial profiling and the unequal application of the laws. My second question was: what role does language play in enabling and doubling the disappearances that are now spreading like an epidemic from one community to the next? That is, how much does how we speak about detention, deportation, and the rights we want to claim -- in a language too often infected by the very laws and structures we are trying to resist -- affect our ability to effect change on a deeper level, the level of the code that supports the system?

The idea of the Warm Database -- a system for collecting and presenting the stories of who detainees and deportees were before they became defined by their detention and deportation (with safeguards for anonymity for all those who need them), and reconnecting those individual histories to the collective narrative of disappearance -- is my attempt at asking some new questions, in the hopes that they will generate some new answers to the thorny question of how to translate the structures we inherit into the language we want to speak.

The special interest detainees, some of whom were held for two years, have now won their legal battles to be released, which in fact meant to be deported. A report released last year by the Office of the Inspector General, the internal watchdog of the Department of Justice, found that in almost all of their cases, no evidence had ever been found to support any connection to the events of 9/11 or to any other terrorist activity; the men had only been guilty of immigration violations, and had been arrested, classified as special interest, repeatedly interrogated, and held in unusually harsh detention conditions for far longer than necessary or usual simply because they were Arab or Muslim in the wrong place at the wrong time. Meanwhile, the INS (now called the Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services) and the Bureau of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement have both been absorbed into the new Department of Homeland Security, where a culture of secrecy and fear perpetuates the violence against immigrant communities that was first felt in neighborhoods like Midwood's Little Pakistan, but which now is felt as a crisis across the South Asian, East Asian, Latino, African and Caribbean communities of the city. To continue the story of what has happened to our different communities in New York and the U.S. since 9/11, and the deep roots of the current situation, I direct you to the much more expert hands of Aarti Shahani of Families for Freedom, Partha Banerjee of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, Raquel Batista of the Northern Manhattan Immigration Coalition, Jean-Pierre Kamwa of Espoir, and Jagajit Singh of the Council of Peoples Organization, whose interviews you can listen to at the link below, as well as to the many resources outlined in the other links.

Mariam Ghani - Brooklyn, NYC - December 2004