NEW YORK // A couple of hundred Arab-Americans were given a chance to vent their anger at a town hall meeting with US federal and local officials who were told in no uncertain terms that the community felt betrayed.
From racial profiling to selective deportation to the use of informers in mosques and other community meeting places, the officials heard about the fears and worries of many Arabs and Muslims given the Obama administration's continuing use of many unpopular, Bush-era policies. The mood could not be in greater contrast to over a year ago when Arab-Americans welcomed the election of Barack Obama and his intention to turn the page in relations with the Muslim world, said Ahmed Jaber, president of the New York branch of the Arab American Institute (AAI), which helped organise the meeting with several local groups last week.
He said the Arab-American community had been "ecstatic" about Mr Obama's declaration to close the Guantanamo military prison and "even more ecstatic" about his demand that Israel cease settlement activity to kick-start peace talks. But "a year later, our hopes are dashed out", he said. The forum was billed as a debate about immigration reform, which faces a tough battle to make it on to Congress's schedule this year, as well as about civil liberties and national security. The AAI planned to hold similar meetings across the country to galvanise community support for reform.
The Bay Ridge neighbourhood of Brooklyn was chosen as the first debate venue partly because of its strong Arab community. Passions in New York City have also been particularly inflamed in recent months following several alleged bomb plots involving the use of informants and a heated national debate about whether to hold the trial of Khaled Sheihk Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks, in downtown Manhattan.
James Zogby, the AAI president and the debate moderator, urged Arab-Americans to get involved in civic action. "Obama got handed a shovel, not a magic wand," he said. "Did he dig the hole deeper or try to dig us out? We don't know yet, but this is not just about the president." After the arrest of a Nigerian man on charges he tried to set off an explosive device on a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day, the United States ordered enhanced security measures, including an extra check of carry-on bags and a pat-down, for citizens from 14 countries, most of which are predominantly Muslim. The countries were Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
One Arab-American speaker said he feared greater problems leaving and entering the United States during the summer months when many people travelled home to visit family. Since 2003, the AAI has also called for the abolition of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which solicited registrations from more than 80,000 males in the United States on temporary visas from Muslim-majority countries.
Yvette Clarke, a New York congresswoman, promised the audience that she would continue to push for reform in Washington, including the Fast Redress Act. This would allow Arab-Americans who were mistakenly placed on the terrorist watch list compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to appear on a "cleared list" after what she called "flaws" in the government system. She urged people to tell, e-mail or call their elected representatives about their personal stories.
The call to action was echoed by Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, who received applause when she pointed out the more egregious effects of the US immigration system. "Three hundred and fifty thousand immigrants were deported last year and 440,000 were detained," she said, adding that the system was broken and needed to be fixed. She urged members of the audience to attend a national immigration rally in Washington on March 21 to lobby Congress to pass immigration reform this year.
There was consternation in the audience when Tarek Y Saleh, an imam, stood up to ask a question. He told a confused story about his denial of US citizenship because of his ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He also seemed to imply that his supposedly confidential US citizenship interview had been compromised by an FBI informer. "When the talk is theoretical, all is OK but on the ground it's completely different," he told Andrea Qurantillo, district director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services. She had earlier told the audience that her agency was doing all it could to streamline the bureaucracy and shorten waiting times.
Several members of the audience looked impatient when Mr Saleh spoke, but he stood up for himself forcefully. "We are in America, not in the Arab world. We are in America. I have to talk!" The audience then laughed and he was promised time with Ms Qurantillo after the debate to explain his case in full.