Posted on July 13, 1998 in Washington Watch
Last week we focused our efforts on addressing a number of Arab American civil rights concerns.
On Monday a group of Arab American leaders met with an interagency group at the Department of Justice (DOJ). The meeting was chaired by Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder and included officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Department of Transportation (DOT). Our Arab American delegation included the leaders of the Arab American Institute (AAI), American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), American Muslim Council (AMC) and the National Arab American Business Association (NAABA).
Mr. Holder convened the meeting as a follow-up to an initial session we had with the DOJ one-month earlier. At that time, AAI presented a policy paper that outlined three specific Arab American concerns: the use of secret evidence in deportation cases, the harassment of Arab Americans and American Muslims by the FBI and the practice of profiling which unfairly targets Arabs and Muslims at U.S. airports. At that meeting we also offered two recommendations to the DOJ: 1) the creation of an interagency committee to monitor issues raised by the Arab American community and to report and discuss findings with community leadership; and 2) a DOJ outreach effort which would include public meetings to inform the community of their rights and responsibilities as well as the steps the DOJ is taking to protect the rights of Arab Americans.
In response to our concerns and recommendations, Mr. Holder noted that there was progress to report on all fronts. An interagency group has been convened at the DOJ and the meeting he noted we were attending should be viewed as the first of the follow-up efforts to allow Arab Americans to monitor progress in addressing community concerns.
Holder also reported on the outreach efforts being made by the DOJ including his appearance before the AAI co-sponsored Arab American National Leadership Conference, Attorney General Janet Reno’s speech to ADC’s National Convention and the appearance of FBI officials before the AMC conference. Holder also accepted our invitation to participate as a guest on my ANA-TV call-in program “A Capital View.”
The most significant news of the meeting was Holder’s announcement that the DOJ has begun an independent review of all secret evidence cases. Already, he noted, his review process had found errors in two of the current cases.
We were also informed that FBI agents from five cities with Arab American concentrations had been called to Washington for a meeting with the DOJ. We have been asked to prepare a list of community complaints about which the agents can be questioned.
Finally, as we had learned during congressional hearings on airport profiling, which were convened with the assistance of Congressman Ray Lahood, an Arab American, a review of that practice is underway in the Department of Transportation. Arab Americans will continue to press for an end to profiling which only serves to insult Arab Americans and Muslim Americans and which we believe makes no contribution to air safety.
On Wednesday, AAI hosted Sarkis Khoury in Washington. He came to explore ways to challenge the bigoted anti-Arab tactics that were used against his congressional campaign.
It will be recalled that in Mr. Khoury’s recent congressional bid, his opponent, Republican Congressman Ken Calvert and Calvert’s supporters had made an issue of both Khoury’s birth in Lebanon and the fact that his campaign had received extensive national Arab American support. Questions were raised about Khoury’s loyalty to America and about whether there was a “foreign effort” to influence the congressional elections.
We arranged meetings for Mr. Khoury with the U.S. Conference on Civil Rights, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the U.S. Department of Justice and officials from the Republican Party.
We received strong support in those meetings and have laid out a plan to organize broad-based support for a campaign to expose and oppose Calvert’s bigoted tactics.
On Thursday, I flew to Phoenix to assist Arab American merchants in that city who had been targeted by a questionable police raid in September of 1997. More than 50 Arab Americans had been arrested and charged with selling quantities of legal medicines to undercover police officers who had falsely claimed to be using the medicines to manufacture illegal drugs. Our investigation into the matter found that while a few of the Arab Americans might have been engaged in questionable activity, the great majority were innocent and were unfairly entrapped in a situation that has cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, hurt their standing in the community and placed their businesses at risk.
During a daylong series of meetings, we met with a city council member, the Director of Community Services at the Phoenix Police Department, an official in the Mayor’s office and the Attorney General of the State of Arizona.
The outcome of the day’s meetings was quite promising. The police department and the mayor’s office will establish an Arab American advisory council in order to maintain an ongoing dialogue between the community and the city government. The Attorney General will open a review of all of the cases in order to see if the rights of the Arab American merchants were violated. The Arab American merchants and others in the community also agreed to form an Arab American political organization in order to enhance Arab American political activity in Phoenix and to help the community become a participant in the politics of the city.
All in all, it was a successful week for Arab Americans working in defense of our political and civil rights. The effort shows that when Arab Americans organize like other U.S. ethnic communities, they can better protect themselves and promote their advancement in the society.
As we have argued for decades now, there is no short cut to securing political power and civil rights. The only path that promises success requires organization and building the strength of the community and establishing relations between the Arab American community, other community groups and agencies of government on the local and national levels.
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