Around New York City in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, an eerie silence fell on ground zero as South Asian and Arab men started vanishing.
Soon, more than 1,000 were arrested in sweeps across the metropolitan area and nationwide. Most were charged only with overstaying visas and deported back to their home countries. But before that happened, many were held in detention for months, with little outside contact.
Twenty years later, in the aftermath of all the remembrances and memorials to the events of 9/11, little attention has been paid to the fate of these men and their families, collateral damage of a horrific terrorist act and the hysteria it spawned.
Fahd Ahmed, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving, said after the attacks, his group “started getting calls from women saying, ‘Last night, law enforcement busted into our apartment and took my husband and my brother.’ Children calling us and saying, ‘My father left for work four days ago and he hasn’t come home, and we haven’t heard anything.’”
“There were people who were just disappearing from our communities,” he says, “and nobody knew what was happening to them or where they were going.”
They were, according to the 9/11 Commission report, arrested as “special interest” detainees. Immigration hearings were closed, detainee communication was limited and bond was denied until the detainees were cleared of terrorist connections. Identities were kept secret.
A review conducted by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General said its policy meant a significant percentage of the detainees stayed for months despite immigration officials questioning the legality of the prolonged detentions and even though there were no indications they were connected to terrorism.
Although many of those who were held had come into the U.S. illegally or overstayed visas, it was unlikely they would have been pursued if not for the attack investigation, the report said.
The “blunderbuss approach” of rounding up Muslims and presuming there would be terrorists among them was “pure racism and xenophobia in operation,” says Rachel Meeropol, senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who filed a lawsuit in 2002 on behalf of several of the men and continues to fight for additional plaintiffs to this day.
Yasser Ebrahim, an original plaintiff in the lawsuit, was at a shop in his New York neighborhood and noticed people intently watching the television. “I saw these images on the screen, and for a moment there was like some kind of a movie or something,” he says. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
He had been in the United States since 1992 and enjoyed his life. “I loved everything about America,” he said by Zoom from Egypt.
On Sept. 30, 2001, federal agents showed up at his door in Brooklyn, New York. Ebrahim thought the immigration matter would be straightened out quickly, or he would be deported. He remained in custody until the following June.
For three months, his family did not know what happened to him or his brother. Even then there was little outside communication. And some officers at the facility in Brooklyn were physically and verbally abusive. It was months before he saw his brother. “There was the general feeling that we’re going to be here forever,” he says.
Ebrahim’s brother was deported first.
When Ebrahim was finally allowed to leave, he was given clothes several sizes too big and placed on a plane but without being told the destination. The plane went to Greece and after spending a night in the custody of Greek authorities, he boarded a flight for Cairo.
In 2009 he and four others, including his brother, reached a $1.26 million settlement on the lawsuit. Though not an apology, he says, “we thought it was sort of admitting that something wrong was done to us.”
Umair Anser, was 14 and living in Bayonne, New Jersey, when he and his math classmates watched the twin towers fall on a classroom television.
Less than a month later he came from school and found a nearly catatonic mom and a ransacked home. His father, Anser Mehmood, was gone, along with the family’s computers.
“We didn’t know where our father was for the next three months,” Anser said.
When the family did see him again, it was a different man. “He was so weak ... I couldn’t see my dad like that,” Anser said.
With their father gone, there was no financial support for the family. Anser and his brothers were bullied at school; neighbors harassed them at home. It became untenable and the family returned to Pakistan, leaving Mehmood behind, in jail.
Mehmood eventually pleaded guilty to working with an unauthorized Social Security number and was sentenced to eight months in prison. He was transferred to Passaic County Jail before finally being deported to Pakistan on May 10, 2002, where the family now lives.
Joshua Dratel, co-chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ national security committee, says the detentions are a foundational piece of something troubling – an acceptance of more invasive law enforcement for protection from terrorists.
Searches at airports, in buildings, even on subways: “These are things that were once exceptional and extraordinary, and now the exception has become the norm. I think that has put us in a position of vulnerability to more of it and a more malevolent version of it.”
Shirin Sinnar, a law professor at Stanford University, says the extreme measures taken after 9/11 have been normalized to the point that “now we don’t even talk about them. They’ve just become part of the kinds of surveillance and deprivation of rights and profiling that we expect to see.”
The positive, she says: More people seem willing to challenge that.
To a degree, that is true. Attitudes have trended toward people being more wary of the government’s counterterrorism efforts.
But a recent poll by The Associated Press (AP)-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that a majority of Americans, 54%, still believe it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice rights and freedom to fight terrorism.
The long-running lawsuit in which additional plaintiffs were added after the first five were awarded a settlement has continued. It has ricocheted through the court system with mixed results, including a 2017 stop at the Supreme Court. Last month, a federal district court judge in Brooklyn dismissed the lawsuit.
Meeropol says the initial settlement was proof that the plaintiffs had a compelling case. She says no decision has been made yet on an appeal. That leaves a striking fact: Nearly 20 years later, no individuals have been held accountable for how the detainees were treated, she says.
Ebrahim, now 49, and owner of a company that provides outsource service, including coding, to other companies, said now, he would consider bringing his teenage son to New York City to see sights and sounds that he found “charming.”
But, he has advice for U.S. citizens: “Never twist the Constitution again. What makes America America is the freedom, and the Constitution.”