Iranian American Plays a Prominent Role in the Next Chapter of the Civil Rights Movement
Washington, DC - Three years after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, another tragedy continues to unfold – dividing us as a nation. Innocent men, women and children who are Middle Eastern, Muslim or South Asian wake up every day knowing that they may face discrimination, violence and intimidation in the U.S. “Making up one- third of the world, these human beings are Baha’i, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and non-religious. Together, they are writing the next chapter of the civil rights movement in the United States,” says Banafsheh Akhlaghi, President of the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement (NLSCA).
Akhlaghi, who until September of 2001 was teaching constitutional law at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California, has been a central figure in leading a direct response to the new challenges facing targeted communities after the tragic events of 9/11. She has led a small group of volunteer attorneys, law clerks and community organizers who have represented over 600 people in court (including Iranians) and advocated for their rights on Capitol Hill, in the media and in public forums. Building upon their experience and unique expertise, Akhlaghi and Associates have moved forward with the creation of the NLSCA, a new nonprofit organization. The NLSCA provides pro-bono and sliding scale counsel for individuals in need of legal services related to issues arising from civil rights, FBI interrogations, immigration, employment and educational discrimination.
In fact, Ms. Akhlaghi’s efforts and formation of the NLSCA could not have been timed better. According to a recent nationwide poll conducted by Cornell University, “Nearly half of Americans believe the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans.” The survey found that 44% of Americans favored at least some restrictions on civil liberties of Muslim Americans. The survey also showed that 27% of respondents favored requiring all Muslim Americans to register where they lived with the federal government.
Unfortunately, Cornell University's poll results reflect a consistent tendency in American history. In the past, the United States government has responded to perceived threats to its national security with restrictions on civil liberties. During the Civil War, for example, the federal government suspended Americans’ right of “Habeas Corpus” - the individual’s right to challenge his or her detention in a court of law. Similarly, during World War II, 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the west coast of the United States (aliens as well as U.S. citizens) were forcibly placed in concentration camps. Those forced into the camps lost their homes and businesses, suffered a loss of faith in their own government and endured the humiliation of being wrongly labeled as traitors in their own country.
Now, in the aftermath of 9/11, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian individuals in the U.S. have increasingly faced institutionalized discrimination and widespread suspicion at the hands of the government. In particular, Iranian Americans and Iranian nationals living in the U.S. have found that 9/11 made their lives more difficult and complex, at least in part due to security-oriented measurers that were created in response to the attacks.
One controversial development born in response to the attacks was the Domestic Call-in Registration program (also known as NSEERS), which the Department of Justice implemented in an attempt to register non-immigrant aliens who were permitted to enter the United States prior to September 11, 2002. The program required non-immigrant male nationals from 25 countries, including Iran, to report to local Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) offices in order to be questioned, photographed and fingerprinted. Iranian Americans were especially dismayed over the developments following the December 16th special registration program, particularly the detention and harsh treatment of hundreds of Iranian nationals who - many constitutional experts contend - were unlawfully arrested and placed through deportation proceedings by the INS because of procedural infractions. Those arrested included numerous persons who were awaiting the adjudication of their legal claims for permanent residency under the government’s own 245 (i) provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
In response to the implementation of NSEERS program, the Iranian American Bar Association (IABA) conducted an independent review examining the detention and treatment of Iranian nationals under the special registration program in late – 2002 and early – 2003. Akhlaghi and Associates provided the IABA access to some of the Iranian registrants who discussed their experiences during the special registration process. The IABA uncovered substantial evidence of the arbitrary detention and mistreatment of a large number of Iranian nationals who had voluntarily appeared to register. With the assistance of the Iranian American Political Action Committee (IAPAC), the IABA held two bipartisan congressional briefings on their published report.
Ms. Akhlaghi was invited by the IABA to testify at both briefings. She spoke passionately, asking the congressional staffers in attendance to follow her step-by-step account of what actually happened to the detainees. She pointed out that these individuals, who were students, businessmen, dentists and post-doctorate graduates, walked into INS offices, in California on their own volition, believing they would be questioned on their status and would leave the place immediately thereafter. “The INS website was unclear and ambiguous. Iran was among five countries on its priority list, but there was no indication that anyone who held a legal status would be held without any clear violation to immigration laws, instead of having a clear plan of what to do with these individuals, the INS rounded them up like common criminals,” Akhlaghi said.
IAPAC and the NLSCA have worked closely together in recent months to raise congressional awareness of the government's mistreatment of Iranian nationals through the special registration program. "IAPAC has been instrumental in providing a channel to the government and a voice that can be heard on Capitol Hill," Akhlaghi said. IAPAC has arranged for meetings between Akhlaghi and congressional staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee along with other legislative aids. The purpose of the meetings was to further educate policymakers on the impact of the NSEERS program on the Iranian American community. Specifically, the meetings addressed how the INS indiscriminately detained and forced through deportation proceedings many individuals who had applications for permanent residency and were eligible for relief under the U.S. government’s own 245 (i) program. As a consequence of these meetings, the NLSCA is providing specific case examples of Iranian nationals who are unjustly facing deportation due to their voluntary compliance with the federally mandated NSEERS program.
Through the assembly and activity of members of their community to protect their civil liberties after 9/11, Akhlaghi says, Iranian Americans have found themselves at the forefront of a new civil rights movement. In an interview with the Contra Costa Times, Akhlaghi said, "There is another group that has now come forward as a group with the light shined on them, rounded up and shackled. It's time to turn up the volume on the voices of our clients, and I believe America's ready to hear it." After all, she asserts, Iranian Americans, like all other individuals in the United States possess inalienable rights that must be upheld by the government. While Akhlaghi and other individuals paving the way towards this realization know they will encounter difficulty and resistance along the way, they know that the ultimate result will be better lives for the present generation and those of the future.
Paid for by the Iranian American Political Action Committee (IAPAC). This communication is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. Contributions are not tax-deductible as charitable deductions for federal tax purposes.
IAPAC is a registered bi-partisan federal political committee that contributes to candidates for federal office who are attuned to the domestic needs of the Iranian American community. IAPAC focuses exclusively on domestic policy issues such as civil rights and civil liberties, and encourages Iranian Americans to actively participate in the electoral process, to vote and run for political office.