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Stop Putting Americans on Hold

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"It doesn't matter that you're a citizen," a U.S. border agent told Anila Ali, as he took her away for additional questioning. "What matters is where you were born."

Anila is a teacher, a mother, and a community organizer in Irvine, California. Born in Pakistan, she's been a U.S. citizen since 2002. She gets pulled aside for additional questioning and intrusive searches every time she flies home to the U.S. after traveling abroad. Why? Because of where she was born.

Zuhair Mahd, a blind adaptive technology specialist who's lived in the United States for most of his life, struggled for five years to fulfill his dream of becoming an American citizen. The law requires the government to make a decision on citizenship applications within 120 days of an applicant's interview. But the government delayed a decision on Zuhair's application for years, forcing him into a grueling legal struggle in which he largely represented himself. Why? Because of his name.

What happened to Zuhair and Anila is not only unfair, it violates their human rights. Unfortunately their stories aren't unique. Members of South Asian, Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim communities are regularly profiled, questioned, harassed, delayed, and detained -- all in the name of national security. At the root of this abusive treatment is a patchwork of discriminatory and ineffective immigration and counter-terrorism policies that turn individuals into suspects based on little more than their name or the place where they were born. These policies make entire communities more vulnerable without making any of us safer.

The government also targets individuals using mismanaged, bloated databases and watch lists in which South Asians, Middle Easterners, Arabs, and Muslims are over-represented due to years of discriminatory profiling. These databases, which include countless individuals who have never been suspected of any wrongdoing, have become notorious over the years for continually generating false matches and diverting precious law enforcement resources. The consequences of generating a false match can be great. It can tear families apart, subject individuals to prolonged detention without charge, or prevent people from freely entering and exiting their own country. The government's own audits have found these lists inaccurate and outdated, concluding that there is no meaningful redress for people wrongfully included or linked to such databases.

These policies represent but the latest phase in a long and sad history of government practices that marginalize and criminalize minority and immigrant communities in America. To date, the ugly reality of this latest phase has remained largely hidden in the shadow of fear cast by national security concerns. Worse, it has been widely tolerated, and all too easily dismissed, as the necessary sacrifice of "others" for the illusion of greater security for "all."

On April 28, 2010, the Center of Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law will release Americans on Hold: Profiling, Prejudice, and National Security, a powerful documentary that tells Anila's and Zuhair's stories and exposes the widespread impact of profiling in citizenship applications and at the borders. Through the eyes of Anila and Zuhair, the film reveals how such discrimination breaks up families and communities, and renders us all less secure.

This treatment isn't just an inconvenience to people like Anila and Zuhair. Targeting people for discriminatory treatment on the basis of their race, religion, or national origin is quite simply a violation of their human rights. Just like other kinds of racism, it's also inconsistent with American values of fairness, justice, and equality.

While we've all been told that we have to sacrifice some civil liberties in the name of national security, the reality is that this sacrifice is not borne equally by all. The recent enactment of SB 1070 in Arizona--which mandates state law enforcement authorities to demand immigration papers from anyone based on the mere suspicion that they may be undocumented--is a clear example of a policy that will lead to more racial profiling against communities of color. Targeting on the basis of stereotypes about race, national origin, and religion doesn't make us any safer--it only makes people like Anila and Zuhair, and countless other Americans and aspiring Americans, less safe in their own country.

As Congress debates lowering the criteria for inclusion on the Terrorist Watchlist and gears up for a major debate on immigration reform, we need to remember that there is no trade-off between rights and security. Protecting rights is what keeps all of us--and our values--safe.

Let's tell our leaders to enact federal law prohibiting profiling on all grounds and stop putting Americans on hold.

Smita Narula is the Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law.

To get more information on Americans on Hold, to attend the launch, or to host a screening in your community, please visit: www.americansonhold.org