The War At Home

Within hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center, President Bush appeared on national television to offer his first promise to the American public: “We will smoke these barbarians out of their caves.” A cleansing was in order. The world was to be decontaminated of every last trace of Islamic fundamentalism. Yes, a nation that is ruptured and speechless in the wake of terror can still find comfort in a trustworthy colonial logic: cleanse, decontaminate.

We braced ourselves for the very worst. Hundreds of reported incidents of brutal beatings of Arab, South Asian, and multinational Muslims flowed in. Before long, we learned of the first, second, and then third racist killings. Bush vaguely told the American public to “cut it out.” But in reality the president was fast making good on his extraordinary promise of a permanent war at home linked to the war abroad.

In the name of fighting terrorism, Bush is expanding and redirecting the ongoing attacks on people of color. A qualitative shift has taken place wherein the prison industrial complex is being reorganized to fully serve the war program. Two changes stand out: positioning immigrants at the forefront of racist state violence and increased control of law enforcement by the federal government. These changes pose grave new dangers. But they also provide opportunities for deepening and unifying struggles for racial justice and immigrant rights.


Prior to September 11, state violence was often viewed through the lens of the African American experience. Post September 11, immigrants are the new face of racial profiling, racist laws, and deprivation of civil liberties. As the state and some of the public have quickly make Arabs and South Asians new targets of racism, can we incorporate these new racialized groups into a more inclusive vision of racial justice?

Today the language and imagery are “terrorist,” “immigrant,” and “Arab,” but the infrastructure established in the process is a potent source of increased racism and repression against all peoples of color and indeed all who live in the U.S. The fight for immigrant rights must become a centerpiece of efforts to build a broad national front to reverse Bush’s attempt to permanently deprive all people of color of civil and constitutional rights.

Police chiefs from around the country who, only a year ago, were beingscrutinized by the Department of Justice for their “racial profiling” of African Americans are now being summoned by Attorney General Ashcroft to “interview” tens of thousands of immigrants merely because they are of Middle Eastern descent. Meanwhile, INS detention centers, many of them run by private prison corporations, function as today’s internment camps.

The INS has become a lead enforcement agency in the nation. With an already exponentially growing budget, the INS has been transformed into two agencies, one to deal with “services” and the other to focus on enforcement.

The Bureau of Immigration Enforcement (BIE) will oversee border patrol, detention centers, and deportation proceedings, as well as the new forms of immigrant policing already occurring in the interior. In addition, the INS added the names of more than 300,000 immigrants scheduled for deportation to the FBI’s criminal database. Thus, state violence-in the form of policing, detention, and prisons-has become a crucial political arena for the immigrant rights movement. The immigrant rights movement can ill-afford to view state violence as peripheral to its longtime core issue, legalization of the undocumented.

Indeed, the USA-PATRIOT Act stripped away much of the protection formerly provided by legalization. Under the act, all non-citizens, documented or not, are deemed potential terrorists and subject to the newly expanded powers of local and state police, the FBI, and INS. Before September 11, a green-card holder could get a traffic ticket, pay a $50 fine, and their case was closed. Today, that same person can be racially profiled, stopped, turned over to the FBI and INS, and detained for up to six months without being charged with any crime or violation. They may be deprived of attorney-client confidentiality and, if brought to court, convicted by secret evidence. The “war at home” has shifted the dividing line from documented vs. undocumented to citizen vs. non-citizen.

This may create division among people of color along citizenship lines. But the extensive history of violence against African Americans proved long ago that citizenship for people of color is never bulletproof. Thus, the “war at home” also provides a strong basis for unity among immigrants, citizens of color, and indigenous peoples in the fight against the prison industrial complex. It is critical that the racial justice and immigrant rights movements seize this opportunity.


Prior to September 11, there was anecdotal evidence of collusion among the different law enforcement agencies, and local anti-police brutality struggles had framed racism as a central factor in shaping policing policies and practices in the U.S. Now such collusion is official policy and is being institutionalized at a rapid pace.

The Bush administration has erected entirely new national policing institutions like Homeland Security, federalized airport security, and military tribunals. Congress has passed the draconian USA-PATRIOT Act, which gravely undermines the rights of Americans, especially non-citizens, and frees law enforcement to broaden and deepen spying, harassment, imprisonment, and sentencing.

The administration is unburdening the FBI and the CIA of former constraints and refocusing them away from traditional crimes to political “crimes” and spying. It is eliminating the already woefully weak guidelines against political spying and harassment that were erected after the exposure of COINTELPRO-the program that undermined the black liberation movements of the 60s and 70s. And bureaucratic barriers between and among different agencies-local police, state police, FBI, INS, and CIA-are being reduced or eliminated. The Bush Administration has made it clear that it plans to create a nationally unified and politicized policing command.

Prior to September 11, struggles against police brutality had been most effective on the local level in raising public consciousness of institutionalized racism and engendering small reforms, such as civilian review boards. This is because local police departments are controlled by local governments, not by states or the national government. This localism was an important obstacle to creating a national movement against police brutality. Even major political explosions, like the riots following the Rodney King verdict or the street actions after the Amadou Diallo case in New York, remained largely localized.

Now that Bush has seized increased national control over policing policies, the fight against various elements of the prison industrial complex can and must be linked into a national movement.

The immigrant rights and racial justice movements face a critical juncture. With the advent of the “war on terrorism,” immigrant rights and anti-racist violence organizing can no longer be thought of as separate spheres within the broader social justice movement.

The immigrant rights movement must give increased priority to the issue of state violence. And the fight against the prison industrial complex-while correct in the view that prisons serve as a means of confining and/or disappearing a generation of black and brown youth-must include in its analysis the pivotal role immigrants play in the expansion of the big business of law enforcement and prisons.

There is much to be shared between those who have been taking on border patrol and INS raids, and those who have been fighting urban police. And both are now indelibly linked to the fight against the Bush administration’s program of permanent war at home and abroad.

Jane Bai and Eric Tang work with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities in New York city

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