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Impact Of War On Non-Citizens

by Cyrus D. Mehta

The war against Iraq has begun. What impact will military action by the US against Iraq have on immigration?

One of the main grounds for civil rights and human rights organizations to oppose the war on Iraq is largely because of the adverse experience that non-citizens have had since September 11.

For instance, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) has issued a statement opposing military action by the US against Iraq because, "based on our experience, we cannot give any credence to the Bush Administrationís humanitarian and pro-democracy justifications for such war, nor to assurances that this will result in greater national security." AALDEF goes on to state: "Just as the war on terrorism has been used as a pretext for racial and religious profiling, immigrant detentions and unprecedented police surveillance, a military adventure in Iraq may well lead to even greater racial, ethnic and religious profiling and further subversion of our basic civil rights. The Administrationís treatment of Arabs, South Asians and Muslims in the US since September 11 has been inhumane, unconstitutional and anti-democratic."

A few days ago the new Department of Homeland Security announced that it will detain all asylum applicants under a program known as "Operation Liberty Shield" who seek refuge from a group of countries, a list that will include Iraq as well as other refugee-producing countries such as Iran, Sudan and Somalia.

While details are not yet out, it is not clear which asylum seekers are affected, what stage of asylum proceedings would lead to detention, or which countries are targeted. The proposed detention of asylum seekers, solely based on their nationality, who have faced persecution in their home countries is troubling. According to Eleanor Acer of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, "We have heard the President justify the war against Iraq as a war of liberation, directed not at the Iraqi people but at their leaders. But 'Operation Liberty Shield' will target individuals for detention based solely upon their nationality, including Iraqis. By treating asylum seekers in such a manner, we will certainly not be shielding liberty, but making a mockery of it."

On Thursday, March 20, 2003, teams of agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation began seeking out Iraqi and apprehending them who are alleged to be living illegally in the US.

The war has provided additional cover for the government to continue to target non-citizens solely because of their nationality. The Administration has not yet learned any lessons from history. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the wholesale internment of Japanese-Americans on the West coast has been roundly criticized and has been viewed as a black mark in this nationís history.

Finally, when the US goes to war, members of Congress and the public rally around the President and any criticism against the administration is muted, and unfortunately, also viewed as unpatriotic. Without strident criticism in time of war, which to many is also a patriotic act, this Administration will continue, as it has done since September 11, to abridge the civil liberties of non-citizens and citizens alike.

While many are of the opinion that the curtailment of civil liberties is necessary in times of war, it is also important to prove that these measures are effective. It is questionable whether any of these measures imposed on non-citizens since September 11 have had the desired effect of enhancing national security. To date, none of the males who have been subjected to Call-In Special Registration, have been charged with terrorism.[1] Similarly, none of the Japanese-Americans rounded up after Pearl Harbor in World War II were charged with espionage or sabotage.

[1] In a news briefing with Kris Kobach, Counsel to the Attorney General, on January 17, 2003 (available at, Mr. Kobach indicated that the NSEERS program has led to the "apprehension of more than one suspected terrorist so far." However, it appears that this apprehension resulted through the less controversial airport registration program and these "suspected" terrorists have yet to be formally charged, leave alone convicted.

About The Author

Cyrus D. Mehta, a graduate of Cambridge University and Columbia Law School, practices immigration law in New York City. He is First Vice Chair of the American Immigration Law Foundation and recipient of the 1997 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyers Award. He is also Chair of the Immigration and Nationality Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He frequently lectures on various immigration subjects at legal seminars, workshops and universities and may be contacted at 212-425-0555 or

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.