Internal Justice Department Report Details 9/11 Detainees' Plight; Arab, Muslim, South Asian Immigrants Languished in Detention for Months

June 2, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – In a major scandal for the Bush Administration, the Justice Department’s internal oversight unit today released a report highly critical of what it shows to be the wholesale and long-term preventive detention of immigrants swept up in the months following 9/11.

According to the report, many immigrants who had no connection to the terrorist attacks of September 11 languished in federal lock-up for months at a time under an official “no bond policy” that actively opposed their release. The INS complained that the FBI had given them no evidence to justify their continued detention, yet some immigrants still spent up to eight months waiting for release.

“Immigrants weren’t the enemy,” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But, the war on terror quickly became a war on immigrants. The Inspector General’s findings confirm our long-held view that civil liberties and the rights of immigrants were trampled in the aftermath of 9/11.”

Release of the long-anticipated report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General – the federal law enforcement agency’s own internal watchdog – had reportedly been delayed for almost a year because of ongoing negotiations with the Attorney General’s office over who would shoulder blame for the abuses. Notably, the report, which implicates high-ranking political appointees, raises serious legal liability questions.

“We are actively assessing claims that should be brought in light of this report,” said Lucas Guttentag, Director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The Justice Department now needs to come clean and release the documents that explain the basis for the policies criticized in the OIG report.” Notably, Justice Department officials named in the findings have reportedly been encouraged to obtain their own legal counsel to defend against any litigation resulting from the information revealed by the report.

“That the Justice Department itself is apparently worried about legal liability stemming from the report of its own internal affairs unit shows the seriousness of these findings,” Romero said. “Conspiring to violate someone’s civil rights is a crime, and we must leave no stone unturned in this investigation.”

Despite the report’s confirmation of widespread abuses, the government still refuses to release the names of the immigrants who had been detained and insists that it has the right to summarily close deportation hearings to members of the press and public. The ACLU has challenged both actions in court.

Justice Department officials have argued that the report reaches no conclusion on the legality of their actions. But, the ACLU’s Guttentag responded that the “practices revealed by the report speak for themselves” and that “the officials responsible are grasping at straws if all they have to say is that the report does not explicitly condemn their actions as illegal.”

Hundreds of the 9/11 detainees have since been deported on minor immigration violations; others remain in America and suffer lasting effects from their ordeal.

By all accounts, the preventive detentions have likely also impeded the success of the 9/11 investigation. Members of immigrant communities around the country have responded to the detentions with growing feelings of alienation and distrust of the police. “In the war against terror, these communities are our greatest asset – their cooperation is essential,” Romero said. “But, the Justice Department’s actions have only served to breed suspicion of the government.”

Specific findings of the Inspector General’s report include:

  • An official DOJ “no bond” policy that prevented immigrants from accessing the justice system;
  • The government process for clearing immigrants of any connection to the terrorists attacks was understaffed and not given “sufficient priority;” clearance took an average of 80 days and in some instances took more than 200 days;
  • The OIG reported criticized the “indiscriminate and haphazard manner” in which immigrants “who had no connection to terrorism” were labelled as possible suspects;
  • Early in the 9/11 crisis, hundreds of immigrants were held without being charged within the prescribed three-day window;
  • The Justice Department actively sought to limit detainees’ access to attorneys, to other detainees and to family members; prison officials were told, “don’t be in a hurry” to assist immigrants in finding attorneys or contacting their consulates;
  • The OIG investigation was hampered by the destruction of hundreds of prison videotapes documenting what are thought to be harsh conditions of confinement and reported abuses of immigrants;
  • Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff of DOJ’s criminal division urged immigration officials to “hold these people until we find out what’s going on,” despite the fact that many had been swept up and detained on minor immigration charges.

Consistent with the findings of the OIG report, the ACLU possesses documentary film footage of interviews with detainees in federal detention facilities compiled in the aftermath of 9/11. The interviews reflect much of what was found in the OIG report.

“Most of the detainees we interviewed in prison felt confused and surprised at their treatment by a country committed to human liberty,” Romero said. “American justice is supposed to be a system where you’re guaranteed a fair and speedy trial – and one where if the judge says you’re allowed out, you’re actually released.”

The OIG Report can be seen at:

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