It didn’t take long, recalls Nadia Marin-Molina, for the telephone to start ringing with reports of harassment by particularly vigilant people looking for anyone who appeared to be Muslim.
The calls, says Marin-Molina, executive director of the Workplace Project in Hempstead, New York, came from day laborers, mostly young men and women from Ecuador, El Salvador and Mexico who wait at street corners in towns on Long Island for contractors to offer work. Though they’re not of Arab descent, in the days following the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, the customary drive-by harassments and police patrols monitoring the area’s day laborers grew steadier and uglier. Sensing their safety could be at risk, immigrants began to stay in their homes.
“We realized pretty quickly that this anti-immigrant sentiment wouldn’t just pertain to one group, that the consequences would ripple through all groups,” Marin-Molina says. “It’s an impact of fear—a feeling that if we speak up, what is going to happen to us?”
Though it still may be too early to judge the effect of the past month’s events on immigration law reform as well as the public’s image of immigrants, there is little doubt that priorities have changed. In Congress, the timetable for immigration reform has likely been set back six months or more. Nationally, immigration activists worry that all immigrants, or those assumed to be foreign-born, run the risk of being categorized as bothersome or even dangerous. “We are certainly concerned about there being a shift in the general public that would paint the entire immigrant community based on what a few villainous individuals were engaged in,” says Arturo Rodriguez, executive director of the United Farm Workers.
Before the attacks, President George W. Bush had been urging the public to view undocumented immigrants as hard-working and conscientious rather than law-breakers resistant to assimilation. Free of the bellicose rantings of Pete Wilson and Pat Buchanan, immigration reform had seemed an issue that liberals as well as conservatives could embrace.
Mexican President Vicente Fox came to Washington in the week just before the attacks to implore U.S. lawmakers to pass legislation that would recognize the integral role of undocumented workers in the U.S. economy. Perhaps motivated by the hope of winning over Latino voters, and surprising many, Bush eagerly concurred. Though the specifics of legislation had yet to be determined, civil rights, labor and religious groups were cautiously hopeful that a full-scale legalization program for the undocumented was in the offing.
All that changed, of course, on September 11. Rather than crafting ways that the Immigration and Naturalization Service might plan programs to legalize many of the country’s more than 8 million undocumented immigrants, the INS has since been told it can take “an additional reasonable period of time” deciding whether to continue to detain a non-U.S. citizen suspected of committing a crime. Instead of enacting laws that might give noncitizens the same workplace rights as those born in the country, at press time it was likely that the Bush administration would secure measures allowing immigrants suspected of terrorism to be detained without charges for a week. (Ashcroft wanted the right to detain noncitizens under suspicion indefinitely.)
Another Bush proposal that would have required schools to reveal information about foreign students to investigators was nixed, though the number of student visas is sure to be curtailed and background checks significantly increased.
Anti-immigration groups seized upon the attacks. In a statement released just hours after the planes hit the Twin Towers, the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform argued that “the nation’s defense against terrorism has been seriously eroded by the efforts of open-borders advocates, and the innocent victims of today’s terrorist attacks have paid the price.”
The public’s fear of terrorism will have to be weighed into any future package of immigration reform proposals. Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, says concessions to the new political realities do not necessarily have to impede measures that would reunite immigrant families, increase wages for farmworkers or make it easier for longtime undocumented workers to become legal. “Stopping terrorism is really about better human intelligence, better information sharing, better technology,” Kelley says. “It’s about knowing the whereabouts of people on a watch list and having staff that are experienced at spotting fake documents. I don’t think any of that is unreasonable.”
As before, the future of immigration reform may depend largely on the strength of the economy. The suggestion that the supply of workers would be increased at a time of heightened unemployment would likely hurt the chances for an expanded legalization program. Fear of terrorism, though, is sure to shape both the machinations of immigration politics as well as the organizing efforts of those who work most closely with undocumented immigrants.