In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the US government created a new agency, the Department of Homeland Security, with sweeping powers not just to fight terrorism, but to enforce immigration laws like never before. Both documented and undocumented immigrants, as well as many US citizens, have seen their lives transformed as a result.
When the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Hassan* had been living in the United States for about three years. He had moved to Pasadena, California from Tunisia in 1998, originally on a tourist visa, and was working night shifts at a local motel. He had a driver’s license and was seeking to obtain a student visa that would allow him to stay in the country legally.
Then, one night, the life he had made for himself in the US came to an abrupt end.
It was the summer of 2002. Hassan, then in his late twenties, stopped at a gas station on his way to work. While he was there, he says, a fight broke out among a nearby group of men, who he describes as Latino. The police arrived and arrested everyone there, including him, even though he had nothing to do with the fight. He suspects he was picked up simply because of the colour of his skin.
After checking his papers, the police brought Hassan to a detention centre, and within days, he was deported to Tunisia, where he still lives today.
“I later found out that my Lebanese boss, who owned a few small businesses in the area, was deported as well,” Hassan says. “The events of 9/11 didn’t help.”
A ‘turbocharged’ deportation system
Hassan’s story was a harbinger of things to come. In the months after he was deported, the US Congress overwhelmingly passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with the far-reaching mission to “protect the American homeland” from terrorist threats.
DHS was created to work in tandem with enforcement of the Patriot Act, which was passed only weeks after 9/11 and gave the federal government sweeping new powers of surveillance and detention. Together, the laws vastly expanded the US security state, transforming how the country policed not only perceived terrorist threats but the entire country — and especially its borders.
“One of the key things that happened after the founding of DHS is it really turbocharged the US apparatus to detain and deport people,” says Mizue Aizeki, deputy director of the Immigrant Defense Project, a New York-based legal support and advocacy group.
The creation of DHS came in a context of an already growing crackdown on immigration. Aizeki says that the current US deportation system can be traced as far back as the mid-1980s, but a key turning point came in 1996 with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
“Prior to 1996, if you had a green card, say, and you had a criminal conviction, you would have a hearing in front of the judge where they would weigh all the expertise of your cases, whether or not you should be deported,” Aizeki explains. This kind of due process was “extremely reduced” after 1996.
Then came 9/11 and the Homeland Security Act. One of the agencies created under that law has become synonymous for advocates like Aizeki with the greatest cruelties of the US immigration system: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
ICE’s task is not to patrol America’s borders; that job was left to Customs and Border Protection, its sister agency under DHS. Instead, ICE was tasked with finding undocumented immigrants already inside the country — and getting them out.
Following ICE’s creation, deportations or “removals” of immigrants living in the US spiked, doubling from about 211,000 in 2003 to a peak of more than 432,000 by 2013.
“What the founding of the Department of Homeland Security did was it basically gave the political momentum and this vast funding to fuel this immigration policing apparatus that we see today,” Aizeki says.
Central to its strategy was greater cooperation between local police departments and federal immigration enforcement.
“What DHS would say is… ‘We can’t be everywhere, but police are everywhere,’” Aizeki says. An encounter with local police over something as minor as a traffic violation can now send an undocumented immigrant into the “deportation pipeline”.
This system became further entrenched not only under Republican presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, but also under Democrat Barack Obama, whose administration vastly expanded the Secure Communities program, first piloted by the Bush administration in 2008. The program allowed jails to submit fingerprints of anyone arrested not only to federal criminal databases, but also to immigration agencies like ICE, leading to more than 500,000 deportations in the decade after it was enacted.
The Homeland Security era has also seen immigration authorities adopt a plethora of new surveillance technologies, Aizeki says, including facial recognition and collection of biometric data such as fingerprints, iris scans and even DNA information. Some of these technologies were used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before being implemented at home.
Military weapons have also found their way back to the streets of US cities in the hands of immigration enforcement. In 2019, a division of ICE took to the streets of Queens in an armoured personnel carrier to conduct an arrest. In 2020, an agent was filmed with what appeared to be an assault rifle outside a building in the Bronx where ICE was reportedly conducting a raid.
Genia Blaser, supervising attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project, says the group has heard stories of immigrants being arrested by ICE after dropping off their children at school or even simply walking to the laundromat. Others were arrested at work in widely publicised mass raids.
Such practices in 2018 led “Abolish ICE” to become a rallying cry for the US left and its newly elected representatives such as New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Three years later, ICE raids haven’t stopped, although they have been significantly scaled back under President Joe Biden.
“We’re seeing ICE continue what they do — continue their raids, continue tearing families apart and separating people,” Blaser says. “It’s being done less publicly, in less visible ways than under Trump, but it’s still happening.”
‘Always pulled aside for a random check’
The tightening of America’s borders since 9/11 has been felt not only by those living in the country illegally, or authorised immigrants who have committed a crime, but by many citizens and other residents who have never come into contact with the criminal justice system — chief among them, Arab and Muslim Americans.
Ali, a 35-year-old Lebanese American living in California who declined to give his last name, tells FRANCE 24 he has never gone through airport security as an adult without being pulled aside for an extra check.
“Whenever I would go through the security line, always, always, I was pulled aside for a random check,” he tells FRANCE 24. “Every single time I went through the security line, there was never a time it wasn’t the random check.”
One time, when Ali was around 25 years hold, he was flying back from North Carolina and found he couldn’t check in at the automatic kiosk. A gate agent offered to help him as he tried again, only to find — to her surprise — that he was indeed blocked.
“She tried to check me in and she said, ‘Well, that’s very strange,’” Ali recalls. The agent took his ID and returned to her computer to look up his name, before telling him: “’You are on a watch list for flying.’ And she couldn’t tell me why.”
Ali couldn’t believe it. He was a software engineer and US citizen, having been born in the country to Lebanese parents. He could think of no legitimate reason he belonged on a watch list.
He filed for redress with DHS, demanding to be taken off the list, but received no reply for months and months.
“I would call in, I would check… and they would always tell me, the computers are down or something doesn’t work, we can’t give you any information,” Ali says.
He eventually did get taken off the watch list, but says he still inevitably gets pulled aside for a random search at airports.
Naheed Samadi Bahram, the Afghan-born US country director at the New York-based organisation Women for Afghan Women (WAW), describes similar experiences. Despite having lived in the country since 2006 and become a citizen — not to mention a leader of an NGO that works regularly with government authorities — she says she gets pulled aside for extra screening any time she returns to the US from abroad.
“And I’m a Muslim, obviously, I’m from Afghanistan, but I’m also not covering my head,” Bahram says. “So [it’s] not like people would identify me from what I look like. But I have always been taken to another place for extra security.”
Bahram notes that she has had “a very clean and white career in the past 15 years that I’ve been in this country; a very clear address, a very clear place of work. Nothing has been hidden, none of that. But just because I’ve come from Afghanistan and lived in Pakistan, those things make things very different for a person.”
‘Deprived so many people of liberty’
For advocates like Aizeki, the speed at which the US built up its security state in the years after 9/11, under intense political pressure and at enormous expense, also shows that many of these developments could still be reversed.
“For a good part of my life, I lived in a world without ICE,” she says. “I think it’s possible to imagine a world without ICE and DHS as we know it, because we’ve lived it that way… Twenty years ago, it was unheard of to have immigration agents roaming the streets brandishing assault rifles or arresting people while they’re doing laundry.”
Besides helping immigrants defend their rights day to day, she says the Immigrant Defense Project’s goal is to push lawmakers and the US public to think beyond a punitive system that links the War on Terror to the policing of marginalised communities at home.
“Part of what this moment calls for,” Aizeki says, “is a reflection on the entirety of the harms of the system, this mindset of Homeland Security or national security, and how that’s really deprived so many people of liberty, but also the right to fight for the life that we would hope everyone could envision and aspire to.”
* Name changed to protect his identity