Cross posted from The American Prospect
On September 15, 2001, author Ian McEwan wrote for the Guardian a moving elegy to lives lost in the September 11 attacks by evoking the “snatched and anguished assertions of love” in final phone calls made from the hijacked planes and the World Trade Center.
Nearly four years later, McEwan’s mood had changed. Writing in The New York Times on July 8, 2005, he suggested a possible “trade” of liberty for security as London reeled from a series of bombings, some of which struck close to his south-of-the-Thames home. Like many others, McEwan had changed his view according to the proximity of danger.
Tram Nguygen’s new book about post-9–11 immigration enforcement makes an important contribution to the debate about the balance of rights and security. She examines counterterrorism strategies from a perspective often discounted in the formulation of national policy: that of those who most often find themselves at the wrong end of a gun barrel. She conjures concise and affecting images of urban immigrant communities and families that have, in effect, been eviscerated by aggressive post-2001 immigration law enforcement. Take, for example, the sixth and final chapter of the book, which concerns a Brooklyn family, the Saeeds, that flees to Montreal rather than face detention, deportation, and separation in the United States. When the Saeeds flee their apartment in New York in the middle of the night, there are still “dishes in the cabinet, food in the refrigerator, linens on the beds, and clothes in the closet.” The parents don’t even tell their two youngest children what is happening. Nguyen’s keen eye picks out telling details of the flight and resulting trauma, like the pile of shoes in the Saeed family’s Montreal apartment, the only sign in a bare dwelling that six people lived there, and an indication of how little they had been able to carry in their “mismatched duffel bags” from New York. Asked what the worst part of losing her home is, the Saeeds’ 16-year-old daughter, Aleena, answers that it’s the feeling of “losing all your dreams.”
Throughout the book, Nguyen, a Vietnamese-born author, journalist, and editor of Colorlines magazine, describes in measured tones how serial dragnets cast by the federal immigration services have swept up individuals or families. Sweeps ran the gamut from “voluntary interviews” around the time of the Iraq invasion to a special registration program in which “noncitizen men age sixteen and over from twenty-five countries” had “to register with the government,” a program that led to 13,799 people being deported and 2,870 being detained.
Nguyen also sketches out a contrast between mundane, working-class lives and the impassive enormity of federal enforcement power. Thus, she opens her book with the story of Muhammad Butt, a Pakistani immigrant detained in the middle of the night on an anonymous tip who later died in federal custody. Butt, who “spoke little English,” had worked at Shaheen Sweets in Queens, New York, “molding mounds of dough into balls by hand, and filling white plastic bins full of the sticky-sweet rashogollahs.” He had been saving for his daughters’ weddings in Pakistan when he was detained.
Nguyen’s is not a full accounting of the human and policy consequences of accelerated immigration enforcement after 2001. At minimum, she has eschewed broader analysis of the wisdom of these policies, even apart from their human toll. Take, for instance, a particular policy issue that she hints at but does not develop. In her chapter on Los Angeles, she mentions in passing the growth of violent Salvadorian gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, as a consequence of deportation policies in late 1990s. How might have the displacement of families that she describes, the wrenching apart of innumerable dreams and aspirations, stroked anti-Americanism across the Middle East and South Asia, just as the United States claims to be building democracy there? It is deeply troubling to think that one day we may know the answer.
Aziz Huq: “The Other Side of the Crackdown” (PDF)