My name is not Khan

Published: October 3, 2009 - 13:58

Right to freedom, mobility and work cannot be taken away, as migration is intrinsic to exile and survival

Mukul Sharma Delhi

Migration is a matter of my life. I first moved to Delhi to pursue my education. Later, I had to often leave my country for work. Immigration grew, and increasingly it became tiring for me - various counters, security checks, scanning, and questions began scaring me. I carry a few baggages, but I think my family and I must carry all our rights with them when I move. I am a human being, whether I am documented or not. Immigration systems and detentions need reforms and alternatives to ensure that I am treated with respect for my rights and human dignity. We need to support each other - tens of thousands of individuals will be harassed and detained tonight, tomorrow, and the next day in the present system.

My fear is not a hallucinatory creation. It is based on ground realities. A number of official reports, by the US government's accountability office and the US department of homeland security, tell me that more than 30,000 immigrants are detained each day in that country. More than 300,000 men, women and children are detained by the US immigration authorities each year. This number is likely to increase even further in future. Their detention and harassment may be for hours or weeks or even years, as they go through various enquiry procedures. They are political activists, Muslims, asylum seekers, labourers, victims of human trafficking and others. It is the widespread use of immigration controls and detention that has forced US immigration authorities to contract with approximately 350 state and county criminal jails across the country to house individuals, pending deportation proceedings. Approximately 67 per cent of immigration detainees are held in these facilities, while the remaining individuals are held in facilities operated by immigration authorities and private contractors.

I once heard James Pendergraph say, "If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he is illegal, we can make him disappear." James is the former executive director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office of State and local coordination. He was speaking on August 21, 2008 in Washington DC at the Police Foundation National Conference on The role of local police: Striking a balance between immigration enforcement and civil liberties. Another day, a primetime programme on a national news channel, Dobb's Choice: CNN Host Picks Immigration as His Ax to Grind, Extra! was saying, "Illegal aliens... not only threaten our economy and security, but also our health and well-being."

Several of my college friends have been migrating to the US since long and have well-established lives. Even today, as the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2007 suggests, approximately 1.8 million people migrate to the US every year. The vast majority has official authorisation to live and work in the US. A minority reaches the country as unwanted, unauthorised, suspected or security threat. However, all, irrespective of status, go through a rough immigration regime. Governments claim the right to exercise authority over their borders; but they more often than not forget their obligations to respect the rights of people, no matter who they are, how and when they reach the host country, or no matter what prompted an individual to leave his or her home country.

There are multiple arms of immigration control and detention, each getting stronger and wilder. In 1996, the US significantly expanded the categories of individuals who would be subject to mandatory detention to include a person convicted of a variety of crimes,including non-violent misdemeanor convictions without any jail sentence, and anyone considered a national security or terrorist risk. If already in the US, a person is subject to mandatory detention if he or she is suspected of being a national security or terrorism concern, or is charged under immigration law with two "crimes involving moral turpitude", an "aggravated felony", a firearms offence, or a controlled substance violation. If he or she is "seeking admission" into the US, even as a lawful permanent resident, he or she is subject to mandatory detention if charged under immigration law with one crime involving moral turpitude, prostitution, domestic violence, or, if he or she has received any number of criminal sentences totalling five years or more.

How broad and confusing terms like aggravated felony and moral turpitude can be, subject to different interpretations, is revealed by the following example. A 37-year-old lawful permanent resident, who had lived in the US for the past 18 years, was deported to Haiti for two convictions for possession of stolen bus pass transfers. The immigration court found that these convictions constituted two crimes of moral turpitude, a decision that led to his deportation. Such immigration laws, almost unknown some years ago, have helped in the manufacturing of an almost transcendental entity, the nation-state.

My name is not Khan. I am an Indian, an Asian. And, I am not the only one.

There are hundreds of identified cases in the past 10 years in which even US citizens and lawful permanent residents have been targeted by immigration agencies. In one of my visits, I went through the story of Sam Kambo. He was married with four US citizen children, had been living in the US for 12 years and was applying to become a lawful permanent resident. He was detained in October 2006 by immigration authorities and charged with taking part in politically motivated executions in his native Sierra Leone. In June 2007, an immigration judge found that there was 'no credible evidence' to tie him to crimes in Sierra Leone and ordered him released from immigration detention on bond. However, the ICE immediately appealed this determination and Kambo remained in detention. A US district court judge finally ordered immigration authorities to release Kambo in October 2007, nearly one year after he was first taken into detention. The US government has appealed against his release.

I wanted to move around the world. Here am I, stopped by immigration authorities in different countries at different times, often not knowing what is happening and not understanding what my faults are. Unlike other areas of law and natural justice, I have the burden to demonstrate that I should not be deprived of my liberty, rather than the immigration's burden to support that their procedure is necessary and right. I am the one who has to ignore, forget, forgive the excesses and illegalities, injury and insults of immigration.

Will border regimes ever change? In September 2008, ICE announced many voluntary guidelines that will be implemented in a few years to humanise the system. Will they work? Till they do, I can move only if I have the courage to challenge the detention. Will I be able to remind the immigration regimes, including of the US, that entering or remaining in other countries, even without proper authorisation, is not a crime; it is maximum a civil violation. And, my right to freedom, liberty and work cannot be taken away, as migration is intrinsic to my existence.

The writer's recent book is Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia, 2008, Routledge


Right to freedom, mobility and work cannot be taken away, as migration is intrinsic to exile and survival
Mukul Sharma Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews