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Suspect Citizens: East African Immigrant Responses to Post-9/11 Legal Reforms

Summary of Remarks
In the months after September 11th, President Bush declared a "war on terror," and related anti-terrorist policies have inflicted what Professor Boyle calls "collateral damage" on many immigrants residing in the U.S. Professor Boyle headed a project team that conducted 93 in-depth interviews with East African immigrants to gain a better understanding of immigrant perceptions of legal reform related to the "war on terror."

The meaning of law emerges on three levels: 1) the abstract form, or law as it is written, 2) enforcement, and 3) the public’s perception and reaction to law. By analyzing this third component, Professor Boyle sought to gain insight into the effects of laws on immigrants after September 11 and how those effects are being institutionalized, i.e., becoming a part of American's day-to-day lives. While some perceptions of the law were exaggerated or incorrect, those perceptions nevertheless promote certain types of behaviors and so are important in understanding the total implications of law.

Law is institutionalized on several levels, the highest being the lawyers and lawmakers who have a specific understanding and knowledge to use the law. The other primary level is the understanding of the general public, which usually comprises some knowledge of the existence of laws and some details, but is mostly characterized by a general impression of what the law implies. Immigrants generally fall into this second level of understanding. Because they are particularly affected by many of the laws initiated and enforced after September 11, ambiguities or incomplete knowledge of the laws are disconcerting to them.

One of the most common perceptions among those interviewed was a fear of deportation. This concern was particularly serious for Somalian immigrants. The threat of deportation holds serious implications for many East Africans and so promotes more conservative behavior from them, such as decreased political activity or expression. Immigrants holding temporary visas are particularly inclined to restrict political expression for fear of attracting negative attention.

Another response to the fear of deportation has been seeking citizenship. Several immigrants expressed what they perceived as advantages to citizenship, such as increased safety from deportation and less uncertainty about legal status. The fear of deportation has, for many immigrants, inspired a need to formally declare loyalty to the U.S. and remove them from suspicion.

A second theme that emerged from the interviews was the widespread effects of bureaucratic slowdowns since the September 11 attacks. In the three months immediately following the attacks, refugee resettlement in the U.S. was completely shut down. Since then, the numbers of refugees admitted in the country have not returned to their pre-September 11 level. Before the attacks, the U.S. admitted an average of 90,000 refugees per year. In 2001-2002 the Bush administration approved the entrance of 70,000, refugees but only allotted funding to cover 50,000; in the end, approximately 25,000 refugees actually arrived. The figures for 2002-2003 are similar, at approximately 26,000 refugees. The African immigrant population is directly affected by these slowdowns. In fact, family reunification has been delayed in many cases because of the bureaucratic hurdles.

Bureaucratic slowdown has also prevented the repair of several INS mistakes. Under previous conditions, when a mistake was discovered, steps were taken to correct the problem and continue with the immigration process. Since the amount of work for immigration authorities has increased without a corresponding increase in staff and resources, these issues do not receive the attention they would have prior to September 11.

The backlog of cases with the INS has also caused some people to be put out of status while waiting for their file. In some instances, the proper procedure has been initiated and the applicant has correctly conformed to the requirements, but the backlog of work has prevented timely processing.

The third theme to emerge from the interviews is that the "war on terror" has increased racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination, both on the state and private levels. One of the major examples of state-level discrimination against immigrants was the FBI closing of major Somali wire services. This has had an immense impact on the Somali population since a close relationship with their families is an important part of their culture. By closing these services, many families are not able to send money to each other, thus cutting off some families’ primary support. Other state changes have included reforms in driver’s license administration and airport security. On the private level, many immigrants have experienced racism and discrimination from strangers in the street. Others have suffered damage to their businesses or property as a result of racism. These incidents were particularly common in the months immediately following the terrorist attacks, but generally met with a muted response from public officials.

In conclusion, September 11 has had a lasting impact on immigrant assimilation. Professor Boyle makes several recommendations to alleviate some of the negative effects of post-September 11 laws and policy enforcement. First and foremost, she argues that the legal mandate of the "war on terror" must be more clearly defined and tailored to target terrorists rather than immigrants. Second, the state should sponsor education programs designed to inform immigrants of the precise terms of the law, particularly relating to what acts will invoke deportation and what acts will not. Third, bureaucratic immigration services desperately need more resources to process their workloads. Fourth, we need to take steps to reduce violence and discrimination against members of immigrant communities.

Speaker biography
Elizabeth Heger Boyle is an Associate Professor of Sociology & Law at the University of Minnesota. Her current project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, considers gender differences in citizenship decisions among East African immigrants to the United States. She is also exploring how Muslim immigrants deal with perceived contradictions between Islamic and American law. Prior to this research, she wrote a book, Female Genital Cutting: Cultural Conflict in the Global Community (Johns Hopkins 2002) highlighting conflicts between national democratic processes and international mobilization in the case of female circumcision. Her articles have appeared in The Law & Society Review, International Sociology, Social Problems, and other highly-respected journals.