LETTER: Civil Rights and Homeland Security

BY

On the day before Thanksgiving, at 6:20 AM, my husband and I stood in line amongst people hailing from around the world whose unifying cause in waiting outside before dawn through a snow storm was the hope to become citizens of the United States. We were waiting outside the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) headquarters, to appeal a last-minute cancellation of our immigration interview, the final phase in my sponsorship of my husband’s permanent resident application. Two weeks before the date we had been assigned in August, our interview was delayed for over four months rendering my husband ineligible for federal education loans, and ruining his plans to attend graduate school. We are lucky. For us, the delay simply “delays” the natural course of our lives. For others standing in line with us, recent changes in federal immigration procedures meant an indefinite and unreliable termination of family separation. Freezing INS-classified “priority” cases is a violation of American citizens’ fundamental right to family unification, established and codified not only in our domestic law, but also in international treaties that form the core of the human rights doctrine our country proudly advocates abroad.

Since the new Department of Homeland Security was established, the INS is in havoc. Timing guidelines once strictly adhered to have been revoked. Under new regulations not available for public distribution, the INS has reserved the right to indefinitely postpone the granting of immigration interviews which form part of the federal right to family unification through immigration. This creates a group of status-less immediate relatives of American citizens whose mobility is severely restricted by their inability to leave the country without defaulting on their visa application, for an indefinite period of years.

The scene we experienced at the INS was disturbingly Kafkaesque. Clerks and bureaucrats dispossessed of any information directed herds of confused citizens and immigrants from one desk to another, shuffling forms, dispelling responsibilities, answering inquiries with “I dunno, no one knows.” My Congressman attempted to interfere on our behalf along with many of his other constituents, only to receive the same response. The lack of any appeals mechanism before the issuing of a final visa rejection and deportation warrant leaves citizens at the mercy of powerless clerks. Additional security precautions are certainly necessary, but their victims are not potential terrorists–who have succeeded in securing visas since September 11th–but innocent Americans and their sponsored relatives, whose rights have been temporarily frozen while the INS restructures.

Unfortunately, as an Israeli dual-citizen, I am experienced with the potential dangers of subjugating civil rights to security concerns in times of war or potential terrorism. Israeli citizens have long been torn between demanding security and lamenting government infringement of individual rights for security concerns in car searches and roadblocks, mandatory identification cards, and other security investigations. The United States consistently demands of Israel to respect individual rights to the greatest extent possible while fighting terror. Now, while under attack, it must serve as a model of its own philosophy. Clearly, new security measures must be instated. But there are ways of balancing improved security and the maintenance of civil rights. A citizen’s complaints Ombudsman at the major immigration offices, for example, could be granted a mandate to interfere on behalf of special cases that are especially damaged by the new proceedings. In moving towards a security-conscious society, while remembering that we remain an immigrant society, striking and maintaining such a balance is critically important.

Hephzibah Levine, 1L

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