On Jan. 28, two agents from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) arrested me outside my office at the Brookings Institution. In a matter of moments I was transformed from research scholar at a venerable Washington think tank to suspect, from a person with a name and a face to a “body,” a non-person. I was put in a car, taken to a detention center, locked in a cell, and stripped not just of my belt and shoelaces but of my pride and dignity—all because of my nationality.
As a visiting scholar from Pakistan, where I am an editor, I had visited the State Department and attended functions with senior U.S. officials. But as far as the Justice Department was concerned, I was someone to be stalked and brought in by burly federal agents. I am only one of hundreds of victims, from Pakistan and elsewhere, who have suffered such indignities under the absurd new policy that requires foreign nationals from numerous Muslim countries to register with the INS: the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. Many have fared far worse than I.
For more than a century, people from all over the world have come to the United States to escape repression and enjoy its freedoms. Perhaps for the first time in American history, we are witnessing the spectacle of families migrating from the United States in search of safety.
It is argued that this policy is meant to increase security for the United States. A worse way of doing so could hardly be imagined. The policy is an attempt to draw a Maginot line around America. Not only is it likely to fail in securing the homeland, it is creating more resentment against the United States. Does America need a policy that fails to differentiate between friend and foe? Not only has the Justice Department designed such a policy, it has authorized the INS, arguably the most inefficient of the bureaucratic organizations, to implement it.
The argument that, as a Brookings scholar, I should have known or did know about the registration policy is wrong.
On Oct. 22, 2002, I was registered at the airport. I was told to return for a second interview on or before Dec. 2. But before that date I learned that Pakistan was not on the INS list of countries. So I checked with the INS help line and was told that I did not need to go in for a second interview. Later in December, Pakistan (along with Saudi Arabia) was put on the list and the INS issued another deadline for registration, sometime in February. But even then, the registration requirement related only to Pakistani nationals who had entered the United States before Sept. 30, 2002.
I did not know I was in violation of the INS policy. Brookings did not know I was in violation. My friends in the State Department did not know I was in violation. And if—even after following the policy closely and calling the INS for information—we could not understand the law, what hope can there be for the cabdriver or the restaurant worker who doesn’t have the leisure to discover the letter and intent of INS policies?
The Justice Department’s job is not foreign policy, of course, and part of its duty is to prevent both American citizens and legitimate visitors from doing or suffering harm in this country. The INS should keep a watchful eye on potentially dangerous foreigners, but it must do a much better job of distinguishing them from the vast majority of foreign nationals in this country who seek only to work, study and obey the law. Moreover, the law itself must be clear and fair for those to whom it applies.
As matters stand, the policy draws on the “us vs. them” syndrome. The very question of “why they hate us” is begotten of the binary logic of terrorism and does incredible damage by removing the distinction between the U.S. government and America, between the official United States and American society. The irony is that confusing these two distinct categories is the big achievement not of “terrorists” but of the U.S. government itself. There are many people out there who may not, and do not, agree with U.S. policies, but neither do they hate America.
Mere rhetoric about Islam’s being a great religion or the fact that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam or even that registration is not about racial and religious profiling will not do. People out there are neither stupid nor intellectually challenged. It does not serve any purpose for the United States to test their intelligence.