After the September 11 attacks, the FBI got a tip about a 24-hour grocery store "operated by numerous Middle Eastern men." The informant believed there were "too many people to run a small store" and considered it suspicious that the store was closed the day after the attacks.
You might not think a convenience store run by immigrants working long hours would attract the FBI's attention. Yet a man arrested at the store was one of 762 immigrants detained by the federal government as part of the 9/11 investigation in the 11 months following the attacks. Almost all had entered the country illegally, overstayed a visa, or violated the immigration laws in some other way.
Such illegal aliens usually are deported or sent back to their countries under "voluntary departure orders." Instead, these people were locked up for weeks or months without bail and treated like Al Qaeda operatives, although none has been charged with terrorism.
A recent report from the Justice Department's inspector general reveals that the detainees, most of whom ultimately left the country, were considered guilty until the FBI declared them innocent, a process that took 80 days on average. Meanwhile, they might not be informed of the charges against them for weeks, and their efforts to find lawyers were obstructed.
The detainees were isolated from their families, who often did not even know where they were being held. The inspector general also found credible evidence that they were subjected to "a pattern of verbal and physical abuse" that included slamming them against walls, twisting their limbs, yanking on their restraints, calling them "Bin Laden Junior," ordering them to "shut up" when they were praying, and telling them "you're going to die here."
This is how Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock responded to the inspector general's damning report: "We make no apologies for finding every legal way possible to protect the American public from further terrorist attacks."
I'm not sure how locking up grocery store clerks protects Americans from terrorism. In any case, it's not clear that everything the government did was legal. As the report shows, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had little or no evidence to support holding the detainees without bail. INS officials also worried about the legality of keeping detainees in jail long after immigration judges ordered their removal.
Assuming the Justice Department complied with the law, that does not mean it acted reasonably or fairly. The main crime committed by the people it detained was liking this country so much that they were willing to violate immigration laws to stay here. They did not deserve to be treated like terrorists.
At the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where 84 of the detainees were held, they were kept in "lockdown" 23 hours a day; their cells were brightly lit through the night; and whenever they left their cells they were restrained by four men, handcuffs, leg irons, and heavy chains. They were limited to one legal call a week and one social call a month.
Such harsh conditions are especially disturbing given the almost random way in which many detainees were arrested. Three Middle Eastern men who were doing construction work at a public school were stopped for a traffic violation and detained because they had plans to the school building. Another man was detained for seven months because he put down a deposit for a car but did not return to pick it up on the day he was expected.
"The FBI in New York City made little attempt to distinguish between aliens who were subjects of the FBI terrorism investigation...and those encountered coincidentally," the inspector general concluded. "We criticize the indiscriminate and haphazard manner in which the labels of 'high interest,' 'of interest,' or 'of undetermined interest' were applied to many aliens who had no connection to terrorism."
You don't have to believe the FBI is filled with racists to recognize that such aliens would have been treated quite differently if they had been Swedish—a troubling fact in a country that takes pride in treating people as individuals rather than members of groups. "I think America overreacted a great deal by singling out Arab-named men like myself," a man who was detained for eight months told The New York Times. "We were all looked at as terrorists. We were abused."
Still, says the Justice Department, "We make no apologies." Unfortunately, they do make mistakes.