Late in the afternoon of September 13, 2001, a Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (now, The Advocates for Human Rights) staff attorney was meeting in our office with two of our asylum clients, a Christian couple fleeing religious persecution in Egypt. Although it had been rescheduled from the afternoon of September 11, this meeting to prepare their application for asylum was routine for our organization, which provides legal representation to hundreds of asylum seekers each year.
During the meeting, however, two uniformed Minneapolis police officers obtained access to the locked offices of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and, without warning, entered the room where our clients were meeting with their attorney. The police apologized for interrupting the meeting, but stated that they were obligated to investigate a report that a “Middle Eastern” man had entered the building, which was located next to the Federal Building in downtown Minneapolis. After they departed, we could see the fear in our client’s eyes as he asked,
“Am I not supposed to walk on the street anymore?”
We knew then that the impact of September 11 on our clients―and on our friends, colleagues, and ourselves―would go far beyond the loss and grief that we all felt when the World Trade Center fell.
We could not then have imagined, however, what the long-term government and community response to the terrorist attacks would be, nor the lasting impact of this response on Minnesotans from refugee, immigrant, and religious minority communities. The fear in the general public created by the United States government’s “War on Terror” has had a dramatic effect on the daily lives of many Minnesotans. We have received many reports from the public, as well as from staff and volunteers of The Advocates, of discriminatory behavior targeted at people based on their race or perceived religious affiliations.
For example, The Advocates’ staff attorney, a Sikh man, was denied access to a client at the Washington County jail in Stillwater, Minnesota. He was told that he must remove his turban or he would be denied entry to the facility. He told the official that such a rule denied his client a right to counsel and denied him a right to practice his religion. He produced his attorney license to no avail. The official told him that his entry was a safety concern but sought out the supervisor’s input. The supervisor indicated that he could meet with the client but that he could not be given a private meeting room for the attorney-client meeting. Instead, he had to meet with his client in a monitored room communicating via telephone.
In September 2001, we could not have envisioned the extent to which the new laws and policies would silence refugee, immigrant, and religious minorities. In the aftermath of September 11, several individuals requested that The Advocates address the negative impact of the governmental and societal responses on entire groups of innocent people in our community. One man, a Muslim naturalized U.S. citizen, implored The Advocates staff to take action:
“[I]t is not safe for us to speak out; you must speak out for us now.”
The Advocates’ report, Voices from Silence: Personal Accounts of the Long-term Impact of 9/11 (2007), was an attempt to give voice to these concerns. It was not meant to be a comprehensive or a scientific study. It was meant to illustrate the impact that widespread discriminatory private acitons, as well as public laws and policies that have overturned longstanding, fundamental legal protections, have had on real people and their families. In some cases, it is difficult to discern whether a specific situation was caused by the reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks or by persistent racism that existed long before 2001. Our experience in preparing the report suggests that it is likely a combination of both.
We at The Advocates for Human Rights continue to work toward our vision of a country in which every person not only has the right to express his or her point of view, but every person also feels safe in doing so. We hope that by listening to these voices and by seeking out the voices of others, we are increasing the likelihood that future discussions a bout national security, civil liberties, and immigration will include recognition of the inherent human rights and dignity of all people.
By: Robin Phillips, Executive Director, The Advocates for Human Rights
This blog post is a reprint of the Voices from Silence forward. Voices from Silence was published in February 2007.