Posted on November 01, 1999 in Washington Watch

When a federal judge ruled, last week, that the use of secret evidence in deportation cases represented an unconstitutional violation of due process, the Arab American political agenda for 2000 received an important boost.

Ending secret evidence ranks high on the Arab American issue agenda for next year’s elections. Other critical issues the community will seek to bring into the 2000 debate are: overturning the repressive anti-immigrant legislation passed by Congress in 1996; stopping congressional efforts to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; building support for a just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict; delinking economic from military sanctions against Iraq; and promoting a national debate about U.S. Middle East policy that supports a balanced appreciation for the important and positive role played by the Arab world in a mutually beneficial U.S.-Arab relationship.

What is important to note, is that there are increasingly positive signs that these issues will not only receive an airing in 2000, but that they will be in the mainstream of the 2000 political debate.

The recent verdict, noted above, in the secret evidence case involving Hany Kiareldeen, was a case in point. Secret evidence, refers to the practice put into law by Congress in 1995 that has allowed the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to arrest and deport non-citizens immigrants based on evidence that neither the accused nor his attorney may not review.

When the law was being debated, a coalition of civil rights, legal rights, and ethnic (including Arab American) organizations lobbied against it. We argued that this use of secret evidence was a violation of the guaranteed constitutional right of due process. Due process provides that persons accused of wrongdoing be permitted to confront their accusers in open court and be allowed to rebut the charges against them.

When the law passed we continued to fight against this practice using both legal and political means. As a result of the verdict in the Hany Kiareldeen case, this campaign to overturn the law has gained new impetus.

Mr. Kiareldeen has been freed–but 20 others (mostly Arabs) continue to be prosecuted based on secret evidence. At the Washington press conference held to celebrate Mr. Kiareldeen’s freedom (after 19 months of imprisonment) four Congressmen were joined by Arab American leaders and constitutional rights lawyers to address the issue.

The principal spokespersons at the press event were Congressmen David Bonior (D-MI) and Congressman Tom Campbell (R-CA) the co-sponsors of legislation (HR 2121) which calls for an end to secret evidence. HR 2121 currently has 55 congressional supporters and the list continues to grow. In addition to this bill, political resolutions continue to be passed across the United States by a wide range of organizations urging an end to the heinous practice of secret evidence.

Even broader national support exists for the effort to overturn the repressive anti-immigrant legislation passed by Congress in 1996. This national campaign called “Fix 96” has the support of a significant number of ethnic and political organizations and has won broad support in Congress.

The 1996 law in question: created new and burdensome restrictions on legal immigrants; made naturalization impossible for any immigrant who had been convicted of even a minor crime; and denied benefits to legal permanent residents in the United States–who are, as a class, among the hardest working and most law-abiding residents in the United States. There is hope that as the “Fix ‘96” movement grows, it will be able to overturn all of the repressive immigration legislation

On Middle East issues, as well, Arab Americans have hope that the community’s concerns will be heard in 2000.

With the division of pro-Israel forces into pro- and anti-peace camps the activation of the peace camp has given Arab Americans new allies in support of some Middle East related questions.

For example, after Wye aid suffered an initial setback a few weeks ago, a combined lobbying effort (supported by both Arab Americans and American Jews) has made it likely that Congress will soon approve the Wye Aid package the Administration promised to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

In the U.S. Senate, a resolution was proposed, supported by an Arab American Republican, Senator Spencer Abraham, and an American Jewish Democrat, Senator Paul Wellstone. Their resolution calls the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “the heart of the Middle East conflict, and pledges full support for Wye and the Middle East peace process. There were also joint Arab American and American Jewish newspaper ads and a marked change in the political atmosphere as pro-peace forces mobilized in support of the process.

In some important instances, the political discourse about the conflict is changing. On my ANA TV program “A Capital View” (aired live in the Middle East on MBC) a Democratic Congresswoman stated, last week her belief that a Palestinian state was an “inevitability”. President Clinton said as much recently, when he observed, in response to a question about whether he favored a Palestinian state, that while he believed that this issue had to be agreed to by the parties, without an agreement on such a state, he believed that there could be no final agreement. In other words, a Palestinian state was necessary for peace. The fascinating thing was that, in both instances, there was no reaction from the press or from pro-Israel groups.

Even the matter of Jerusalem is being discussed differently in some quarters. Last week, for example, a leading Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey, noted that he would take his cue from Israeli Prime Minister Barak and would defer on any action toward Jerusalem at this time. As small a step as that might seem to be, it represents, a new form of hedging on an issue that has, up until now, been the litmus test which Jewish organizations insisted that candidates must pass. A similar hedge was offered by former Senator Bill Bradley, a candidate for the presidency. What made the Bradley’s hedge notable was that he offered it at an event sponsored by a hard-line Orthodox Jewish organization in New York.

It is also noteworthy, in the same respects, that when Vice President Al Gore spoke recently before a pro-Israeli think-tank, he avoided the usual pro-Israel rhetoric that normally characterizes election year speeches. Instead he spoke about his vision for the future of the Middle East and the benefits that would accrue to all of its peoples with peace.

In this changing climate that allows for some new political discourse, even the discussion of Iraq has changed. There is, of course, no support for the brutal Iraqi regime. But there are serious questions being raised about the effects of economic sanctions on the people of Iraq and about the effectiveness of U.S. policy and U.S. goals toward Iraq and the Gulf region as a whole.

The unending sanctions are an issue of serious debate. A letter singed by 43 members of Congress called on the President to de-link economic from military sanctions. This has now been transformed into draft legislation calling for a reexamination of U.S.-Iraq policy. In part, the legislation notes that

    “the economic sanctions have caused extraordinary hardship on the people of Iraq and failed to weaken the leadership of Iraq, as well as undermining the institutions of civil society which are necessary for democratic political life…

    “The U.S.-led sanctions regime continues to harm the Iraqi population for the crime of its leaders and has not served either the U.S. goals of punishing Iraq’s leaders or disarming the weapons of mass destruction. Rigorous weapons inspections and the adequate provision for civilian needs in Iraq are not mutually exclusive.”

The bill goes on to call for de-linking the economic from the military sanctions and for “imposing a strict regional arms control regime…which demands that the Middle East, including Iraq, should be a zone free from weapons of mass destruction.”

The concern of many is that current U.S. policy is unclear and its continuation only harms the people of Iraq and does damage to the image of the United States in the entire Middle East. This humanitarian and political concern is being reflected not only in congressional debate, but also in citizen action. Across the United States resolutions have been introduced and passed by a wide array of political and religious organizations.

The fact that all of the major issue concerns of Arab Americans are currently being debated gives the community the confidence to press even more vigorously in 2000. This year, it appears certain, our issues will be heard. To deepen and broaden this debate, Arab Americans, armed with their votes and concerns, must resolve to act as agents of change in this election year.

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