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Immigration reform could target Arabs

By Aatif Ali Bokhari -- The Arab American News:

Over 2 million people across the country took to the streets this week protesting legislation proposing to make a felon anyone in the country without residency papers as well as the building of a 700 mile military barrier on the southern border.

The House of Representatives passed legislation late last year that makes illegal immigrants subject to felony prosecutions. New Senate legislation is now being proposed to make the bill broader and offer illegals a way to become citizens. But the Senate moves have been confounded by several conservative Republicans who assert that the new legislation encourages criminal activity. Congress ended up recessing for two weeks with the issue still up in the air.

The subsequent protests were largely made up of Hispanics, but the legislation doesn’t just have ramifications for those of Latino origin. If passed, the laws will affect all immigrant communities, breaking up families and closing down many businesses. And that includes the Arab-American community.

"When you consider the possible repercussions that could take place, there are going to be innocent people who are going to get hurt if these measures are applied indiscriminately," said Shereef Akeel. Akeel, of Akeel and Valentine PLC, was nominated as one of the top ten lawyers in 2004 by Michigan Lawyers Weekly.

"The immigration issue has been a problem for many years. It's not something that has happened overnight, it has taken decades…when you engage in a quick fix measure to criminalize 12 million people, that may not be the best solution. There should be a transition measure," he added.

"There's a fundamental issue and that is that the hardship factor has to be considered…when you have a system of laws that allowed this to occur for decades and then [suddenly] react in this manner, is that the best solution for American society? Or is there a better alternative to consider?" questioned Akeel.

"In the immigration reform debate, we should take into consideration we are a nation of immigrants, said Kareem Shora, Director of the Legal Department of the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC).

Shora added that the proposed legislation is "draconian," and that any change or reform of immigration law will definitely affect the Arab-American community.

"In the past four and a half years, we've seen families torn apart where the children are American citizens and the parents are deported. We're talking about U.S. families torn apart, and obviously that goes against everything that we stand for, that immigration law stands for," noted Shora.

"When you have a situation where a person's status may be suspect, families might be broken apart - good families that form the building blocks of the community. So what's going to happen is it's going to cause difficult situations for [families]," added Akeel.

"These people (legal residennts) have been tax payers and good fathers and have been taking care of the community…(but) there is a domino effect, there is a ripple affect, you're not criminalizing one person, you're criminalizing a whole family … the consequences to remedy the problem, could occur far outweigh the benefits," said Akeel.

Shora said that the Arab-American community should not consider the protests to be an issue for just the Latino community, but one that all immigrants should take note of. "We need to be engaged with our friends in the other communities. We always need to stand with our friends, even with facing problems that might not directly affect us," he said.

Akeel said he feared that Arab-Americans would be singled out by the new legislation. "Of course it's not going to affect law abiding people, but for people who are not of [legal] status, is the process going to be applied to them fairly, or are Arab Americans going to be singled out because of their ethnicity? That's a concern I have," he said.

Since 9-11, immigration laws have been used to target Arab-Americans in the name of security. Fatme Bahmad from Dearborn would know; her husband Mohamad is currently incarcerated and set to be deported by the INS.

Mohamad was staying in the U.S. illegally, coming in through Mexico over four years ago, but he had been working here as a mechanic. His future wife met him two years ago and had sponsored him for residency in this country after they had gotten married last year. This residency process was pending when he was caught for having violated immigration law.

But Fatme believes that immigration wasn’t the only issue. “The reason behind his arrest wasn’t just because he was illegal. I think the basis behind his case lies in the current fear of Arabs and Muslims and in their supposed relation with terrorism. I had two cds showing how Hizbollah liberated Southern Lebanon which they used against my husband,” said Fatme. "The main reason people seek to live in this country is because of work, education, and democracy, because of the freedoms provided here," added Fatme.

She said that although Mohamad wasn’t in any way a member of Hizbullah, simply having the cds put him under suspicion of being a terrorist. She said that even Mohamad’s Arabic lawyer was asked by the U.S. federal attorney "How do we know where your interests lie?" suggesting that he too was a supporter of Hizbullah.

Now Fatme is living at home with her parents and her child, Hadi, a son who was born while Mohamad was in prison. When Mohamad gets deported after serving time in prison, he’s going back to Lebanon. Then after he finds work and a home, Fatme says she will join him. It’s a move that she says she fears. “I’ve been away from Lebanon for 11 years, I fear I won’t be able to adapt as well as I did here, the U.S. has been my home away from home,” she explained.

“The reason people migrate to the US is because people are seeking opportunities. We are all in this together, Arabs and Latinos and we should all have one voice,” she noted.

Indeed, the National Immigration Forum, a leading voice on mmigration-related affairs based in Washington, issued this appeal:

"In upcoming events we are urging colleagues to make sure that the "civil rights for immigrants" message is featured prominently. We have made enormous progress on our messages regarding criminalization, legalization, family reunification, workers rights, and protections. But harsh enforcement provisions remain in legislation before the Senate ("Title II" issues). Unless we raise these issues and fight for changes, any bill that might pass this year could include terrible setbacks that will undermine our gains on other fronts."

In Dearborn, ACCESS is holding a community town hall meeting to discuss the impact of immigration reform on the Arab and Muslim community on Tuesday, April 25 at 6pm. The meeting will take place at ACCESS Community Health and Research Center in the 2nd Floor Conference Room located at 6450 Maple Street in Dearborn. The Community Health and Research Center can be reached at 313.216.2200. Please RSVP by Friday, April 21, 2006 by contacting Rashida Tlaib at 313.842.5120..