Justice Department Admits Attacks on Immigrants

June 15, 2003

A recent Justice Department report admits that the federal government imprisoned several hundred innocent people for long periods of time, suppressing their basic rights and even torturing many, as part of an anti-immigrant campaign launched in September 2001.

The 198-page report prepared by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) looks at the treatment of 762 immigrants, most of Arab and South Asian descent, who were imprisoned as "terrorist suspects" after September 11, 2001.

The Justice Department report admitted that "most if not all" of the arrests would never have been made if not for the anti-immigrant campaign launched that September and that people were kept imprisoned "regardless of the strength of the evidence or the origin of the lead." Many immigrants were simply arrested at random traffic stops, others because of anonymous tips that they were Muslims with erratic schedules or had made "anti-American statements." Not one of these imprisoned immigrants were found to have any connection to any terrorist activity.

Yet most were held in "preventive," long-term detention for several months. Under special orders from the FBI, the INS was instructed to hold these immigrants without any evidence and under an official "no bond policy" to prevent their release.

Prior to September 11, the INS could only hold immigrants for 24 hours without charging them with a crime but in September 2001, the Justice Department claimed that "extraordinary circumstances" allowed it to hold immigrants for an indefinite period of time. The report quotes Assistant U.S. Attorney General Michael Chertoff as telling INS officials to "hold these people until we find out what's going on."

These 762 immigrants were kept imprisoned for an average of 80 days each and many spent as long as 8 months in jail. Access to lawyers and contact with family members were systematically denied or impeded and hundreds were subjected to "unduly harsh" conditions including "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse." At least 84 immigrants held in a Brooklyn jail were kept under 23-hour lockdown and put in handcuffs, leg irons and heavy chains any time they were moved outside their cells. Other immigrants were kept in cells under bright lights for 24-hours/day and others were beaten by prison guards.

The government keeps trying to cover up the extent of these crimes. The release of the OIG report was delayed for nearly a year while Justice Department officials and others have been covering their tracks. Many Justice Department documents relating to these arrests have still not been released and hundreds of videotapes documenting the harsh prison conditions and abuse were destroyed. Most of the detainees have been deported on minor immigration violations, preventing them from testifying about their treatment.