On the morning of September 11, 2001, India-born author Pramila Jayapal was living amid cardboard boxes in her new house in Seattle, Washington, when a friend called from the East Coast and told her to unpack her television. Over the next several days, as Americans struggled with their grief over the deaths caused by the plane hijackings and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, another set of tragedies began to unfold: hate crimes against Arabs and other ethnic minorities swept the country. In Seattle Jayapal was inundated with calls for help from Muslim women who were afraid to leave their houses in traditional dress, from immigrant taxi drivers who had been assaulted, and from Arab parents who had pulled their children from school.
Recently divorced, Jayapal had set aside her activism to carve out time to work on a book manuscript, but a few days later she met with Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) and presented a proposal for a campaign to make Washington a “hate-free zone.” She’d envisioned someone else leading the effort, but within twenty-four hours McDermott organized a press conference to introduce Jayapal — who maintained that she was not looking to front a new activist movement — as the head of the campaign.
During the next year, as hate crimes against immigrants in the U.S. soared by 1,600 percent and the federal government tightened immigration policies, Jayapal was drawn again and again to the defense of immigrants. Today her OneAmerica (www.weareoneamerica.org) is one of the nation’s leading immigrants’ rights organizations. On any given day Jayapal might face off against an anti-immigration pundit on talk radio, speak to a crowd of conservative rural Oklahomans, listen to the plight of Mexican farmworkers, or help argue a Somali refugee’s case before the immigration courts.
Jayapal learned early to bridge deep cultural and economic divides. When she was a girl, her father’s oil-industry job took her family from India to Indonesia, where she attended the Jakarta International School. Though she and her siblings had a modest upbringing, her classmates were often the children of wealthy embassy families from Europe and the U.S. Jayapal spent some time volunteering with charity groups in the Jakarta slums. She immigrated to the U.S. at age seventeen to study English and economics at Georgetown University and went on to receive an MBA from Northwestern in 1990. She worked for a time in banking and marketing, but she found the jobs unrewarding and took a position with an international public-health organization, running a loan program that funded socially responsible health projects in developing countries. Later Jayapal spent two years living in villages and small towns in India as a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs, and from that experience she wrote her memoir Pilgrimage: One Woman’s Return to a Changing India (Seal Press). She became a U.S. citizen in 2000.
I met Jayapal in her office in one of Seattle’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. On the brightly painted walls, she and her staff had hung a U.S. immigration-history timeline alongside banners, batik cloths, and other colorful symbols of their immigrant clients. At forty-two, Jayapal is small framed, with a melodic voice and a flair for storytelling. As we talked, she gestured with one hand and held a mug of tea in the other, her eyes widening when she made a point.
Ostrander: When you speak about immigration, you often cite the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor . . .” Do you think that image of a safe harbor is still a part of the American identity?
Jayapal: I think that the majority of Americans still see the U.S. as a nation of immigrants and as a generous, fair country. Of course, people want policies to govern who comes to America and whether they get to stay. And that’s a reasonable request. But research shows that Americans have strong beliefs in fairness, equality, justice, and democracy. The words due process poll well with Americans. Even if people can’t define what the phrase means, it implies to them that there’s a process, it’s fair, and everybody gets treated equally.
But the system isn’t fair, and we’re trying to publicize that. We need due process for everyone who is detained by immigration officials. More than 90 percent of people who go through the incredibly complex immigration system don’t have an attorney, and those who do get one often hire someone who exploits them and sometimes worsens their situation. My group is constantly solving problems for people who have gotten terrible legal advice or been ripped off by corrupt lawyers. And there are not enough immigration judges to hear all the cases. More and more discretion has been given to clerks to make decisions that should be made by judges, such as whether somebody’s going to be deported.
Part of what OneAmerica does is inform people about the immigration-and-detention system. For example, after 250 detainees got food poisoning at the Tacoma Detention Center, we invited people to come and sample a detainee meal. We wanted to encourage Americans to think about what it might be like to get food poisoning while stuck in a bureaucratic jail system. Most people are horrified to learn that these things happen, but they don’t take action, because they think it’s an isolated occurrence. We’re trying to make people act on their core beliefs about how human beings should be treated. OneAmerica has worked with many clients who have had medical conditions in a detention center and been unable to see a doctor. One of our clients was pregnant and wasn’t allowed her prenatal visits. Finally, in her eighth month of pregnancy, she was released onto the street with no money. Perhaps they were afraid she would deliver her baby in the detention center.
The detention industry is enormous and growing. I think that the more the industry is privatized, the way the prison industry is becoming, the more human-rights abuses we’re going to see.
Ostrander: How does an immigrant end up in a detention center?
Jayapal: There are many ways. Sometimes it is for not having legal status or letting their legal status expire. Either they came across the border without any papers, or they came on a student, visitor, or worker visa but didn’t renew it because they didn’t know you had to, or they forgot, or they can’t read English and didn’t understand the notices. Some immigrants apply for political asylum and don’t get it — often because it’s so difficult to navigate the complex U.S. immigration system — but they choose to stay anyway rather than put themselves at risk by returning to their home countries. Others in detention have committed a crime that is considered a “deportable offense.” You would think these offenses are horrible, but Congress has continued to expand the list of deportable offenses to include more petty crimes. Someone can be deported for an offense as minor as shoplifting.
Many people don’t understand that staying in the United States on an expired visa or entering without papers is not a criminal violation but a violation of the civil immigration code. The U.S. never criminalized immigration violations. I’m not sure why, but my theory is that, if it had, the government would have had to provide immigrants with public defenders.
Since September 11, 2001, we have seen a blurring between terrorists and immigrants. The FBI may start an inquiry into a suspected terrorist, but, rather than take those terrorism charges to criminal court, it will try the suspect on immigration charges instead, because it simply doesn’t have the evidence to prove a criminal charge. It is much easier to win a case in immigration court than in criminal court, in part because you can raise the specter of terrorism without having to prove anything. A respected Somali Muslim imam we worked with was picked up on terrorism charges but tried on an immigration violation. In the immigration court they allowed an FBI informant to testify by phone, because he claimed he was too scared to testify in person. That would never have happened in criminal court.
We’re not necessarily saying all these people should be allowed to stay. We’re asking, Where’s the due process? Where’s the fair system?
Ostrander: Is it fair to extend the same rights to illegal immigrants that we do to legal immigrants and citizens? Polls show that many Americans don’t support equal rights for illegal immigrants.
Jayapal: It depends on how you word the question in the polls. I can show you polls in which 85 percent of Americans respond that immigrants who are here without legal status but have worked hard and haven’t committed any crimes should be given citizenship. Your question also assumes that we have a fair system in place and that the laws make sense. Martin Luther King Jr., in his letter from the Birmingham jail, wrote, “An unjust law is no law at all.” And remember that our Constitution provides certain rights to due process to everyone in the U.S. regardless of legal status. We need legalization and a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants — and not just the Mexican immigrants but the 3 million undocumented Asian immigrants and the growing number of undocumented African immigrants. Many of these immigrants may not think of themselves as illegal because they entered the country legally but have overstayed their visas or let their immigration status lapse without even knowing it.
The immigration debate has unfortunately come to be seen as a debate only about undocumented Mexican immigrants. Hardly anyone discusses African political-asylum seekers or Cambodian refugees or even other Latin Americans: Salvadorans, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans. It’s true there are 12 million undocumented immigrants who have crossed the border illegally to work, but more than 70 percent of the immigrants who enter the U.S. each year have legal status when they arrive. And remember that one in five children in the U.S. is a child of an immigrant — so policies around immigration affect plenty of U.S. citizens too.
Ostrander: You say the immigration system doesn’t work. How is it broken?
Jayapal: For starters, there’s an enormous discrepancy between the number of immigrants permitted by law to enter the U.S. and the number needed by the economy. We need quotas that make sense. The U.S. allows roughly five thousand visas per year for low-skilled workers, but every year about four hundred thousand low-skilled jobs are filled by immigrants. National lobbyists for the farming industry have said that there are millions more agricultural jobs than can be filled by legal workers.
Then there’s what the system does to families. The Republican Party claims we’re a country of “family values,” yet our immigration policies separate husbands from wives and parents from children. There is such a backlog of immigration and visa applications — currently around 5 million waiting to be processed — that sometimes applicants have to be separated from their families for a decade. I met a mother who had escaped El Salvador and come here seeking political asylum with her five-year-old child. She had left her younger son in El Salvador in the care of grandparents. She got asylum, and she and her older child became citizens, but when she applied to bring her younger son into the country legally, the system didn’t allow it. She waited for twelve years before she finally went back to El Salvador and brought her son, who was then fourteen, into the U.S. illegally. She was forced to act because her elderly parents couldn’t care for him anymore, and at age eighteen a child can no longer enter the U.S. under a parent’s visa. Now, can any parents say they wouldn’t have done the same thing? But the son was caught and put into detention and deported back to El Salvador. If the legal system isn’t working because of inefficient bureaucracy, then people will find other ways to be with their families. It’s only human.
Ostrander: But do most immigrants who come into the U.S. illegally have such justifiable motives?
Jayapal: The reasons people immigrate are multifaceted. More people are moving around the world today because of political, social, and economic strife than ever before. Many times it is U.S. foreign policy driving this migration. For instance, after the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] was passed, more than a million Mexican farmers were driven out of business because they could not compete with subsidized U.S. farmers, and undocumented immigration from Mexico rose by 60 percent. If somebody has to leave his or her home to earn a living, you could describe that as “seeking opportunity,” or you could call it “forced migration.” NAFTA talks about a “borderless world” in which goods are freely traded back and forth, but if people can’t legally travel across the border and access jobs on the other side, these trade agreements benefit only corporations, many of which relocate just across the Mexican border so they can pay lower wages.
And when we talk about the causes of immigration, let’s not forget that the U.S. media broadcast around the globe the idea that America is a luxurious and ideal place to live, a place where you can find opportunities that you can’t get anywhere else. If we advertise that America is the best country in the world, then we shouldn’t be surprised when people show up.
The U.S. media broadcast around the globe the idea that America is a luxurious and ideal place to live, a place where you can find opportunities that you can’t get anywhere else. If we advertise that America is the best country in the world, then we shouldn’t be surprised when people show up.
Ostrander: Why do you think some people are willing to risk their lives to enter the U.S.? In 2005 alone there were 433 deaths during illegal border crossings.
Jayapal: Many have to migrate for economic or political reasons. Some are escaping danger in countries where they don’t have rights. Others want so badly to provide a better life for their children that they’re willing to put up with an incredible amount of hardship. I know of a Mexican woman, a single parent, who came across the border illegally to work cleaning houses so that she could pay for her son to attend a university. She’s been separated from him for at least ten years.
There are other people who simply have no other way to feed themselves and their children. Many endure abusive conditions as farmworkers in the U.S. I met one agricultural worker who had whip marks across his back.
Ostrander: Whip marks? How could that happen and go unreported?
Jayapal: The worker came to the United States and asked for political asylum, but he wasn’t approved. He couldn’t go back to his own country, where he would have been thrown in prison. He was completely under his employer’s control — as is the case with many “guest worker” programs.
Ostrander: But don’t federal guest-worker programs include some protections?
Jayapal: Right now guest workers are sponsored by and dependent on a single employer. If that employer threatens them, withholds their pay, or abuses them, they can’t file a complaint, because the employer can have them deported. People who can be deported back to a life-threatening situation in their home country really have no choice. And guest workers have no ability to obtain permanent status here or to join labor unions. Democratic congressman Charles Rangel from New York has called the guest-worker program the closest thing to slavery that he’s ever seen.
Undocumented immigrants have even fewer protections. Recently I heard about a drywall company in Seattle that hired undocumented immigrants and made them scale tall buildings without a safety harness. One of the immigrants fell and cracked his skull. The boss was so scared he would be reported for hiring undocumented workers that he refused to allow the other employees to call 911. He threatened their jobs. Finally one of them did call. The worker who fell lived but had serious brain damage, and a lawsuit was brought against the employer.
Ostrander: Do you think the federal government should crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants?
Jayapal: The government shouldn’t be cracking down on workers or employers without fixing the broken system first. It’s ludicrous to penalize individual employers or workers when our entire economic system depends on undocumented immigrants. That’s why the raids happening across the country make no sense. It’s a temporary solution that makes anti-immigration groups happy but doesn’t do anything to solve the real problem of a broken system. And that’s not even accounting for the violations of human rights that occur in these raids.
Even former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has said that the government should ease restrictions on immigration. Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has said we need immigration reform to stay economically competitive. These are not just the liberal lefties talking.
In Washington State last year thousands of apples remained unpicked because of increased government raids on undocumented workers. Workers were scared to go to work, so the apples fell and rotted. In 2006 the Swift meatpacking factory in Cactus, Texas, was subject to government raids and arrests of 295 undocumented workers. Swift has since not been able to find enough local, native-born workers to fill the jobs vacated by those raids, and it’s had to send buses to Houston to recruit Burmese political refugees. And a big raid on a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, showed that the government should be focusing on implementing labor laws — the company was hiring kids to work intolerably long hours in terrible conditions — rather than cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
Unfortunately employers scared of being held liable for hiring undocumented immigrants are pushing for piecemeal immigration legislation that often downgrades worker protections. The Western Growers Association, for example, is calling for more guest-worker visas, but it says nothing about worker protections.
Some towns — for instance, Riverside, New Jersey, and Hazelton, Pennsylvania — have passed ordinances that penalize employers who hire undocumented immigrants. Even documented immigrants have left these towns, because most of them have family members who are undocumented. Because immigrants are also consumers, many small businesses in these towns have failed, and the downtowns have begun to deteriorate.
I often debate anti-immigration pundits on radio and television — like Tucker Carlson on MSNBC and John Carlson, who has a conservative radio show here in Seattle. When they say, “Just deport them all!” I ask whether they’ve ever tried to live a day without the services or food provided by an undocumented immigrant. You couldn’t do anything except sit, probably in a very dirty house or hotel room. [Laughs.] I also tell them Social Security would collapse without undocumented immigrants.
Ostrander: But undocumented immigrants aren’t part of Social Security, are they?
Jayapal: They don’t benefit from Social Security, but they contribute at least $7 billion a year to the fund through paycheck deductions. I actually know undocumented immigrants who file tax returns every year, hoping that when immigration reform is passed, they can show themselves to have been responsible citizens. And, of course, immigrants pay sales tax like everyone else. And anti-immigrant sentiment is directed not only at undocumented immigrants but also at documented ones. The National Foundation for American Policy estimates that a moratorium on legal immigrants entering the country — which the anti-immigration forces are pushing for — could devastate the Social Security system, ballooning the deficit by one-third over a fifty-year period.
Ostrander: Harvard economist George Borjas estimates that immigrant labor reduced the incomes of high-school dropouts by 3 percent between 1980 and 1988. Do you think immigrants have a negative effect on wages?
Jayapal: It’s true that a supply of labor willing to accept low pay under the table can drive down wages, but why blame immigrants? Why not blame the employers who choose to pay those low wages in the first place?
And there are other factors influencing declining wages besides immigration. For instance, unionization is down, and we don’t have strong labor laws anymore. And until 2007 Congress kept the minimum wage stagnant for almost a decade, bringing it to the lowest level since World War II, after adjusting for inflation. The Bureau of Labor also says that there is no such thing as a fixed number of jobs. Between 2000 and 2010, more than 33 million new jobs that require little or moderate training will be created in the U.S. Even if unemployed American workers agree to take these low-skilled jobs, we will still need more workers to fill all of them.
Ostrander: The right-wing Heritage Foundation has argued that immigrants bring poverty and crime into the U.S.
Jayapal: Throughout our history immigrants have done incredibly well for this country. Numerous studies have shown that crime rates are lower among immigrant populations than among native-born populations. And immigrants provide a net economic benefit to the United States, estimated to be as high as $10 billion a year. Most big-city mayors love immigrants because they start small businesses and promote downtown revitalization. But immigrants have more difficulty succeeding today because the U.S. has fewer mechanisms for integrating them into society than it once did.
European Union countries, on the other hand, have formal integration programs that provide basic information and orientation to new immigrants, along with language courses. In Denmark, for instance, your visa is contingent upon your completing integration classes within your first few months in the country. There are about ninety thousand people on waiting lists for English-as-a-second-language programs in the U.S., and that doesn’t even count the people who have given up. And immigrants without English fluency earn about ten thousand dollars less in annual income than immigrants who do speak English. Many who don’t learn English stay at the bottom of the economic ladder their entire lives.
Ostrander: You often give presentations in conservative parts of the country. What kinds of responses do you get when you speak to those audiences?
Jayapal: What is most effective is just explaining the complexities of the system and then telling stories. Many people just don’t understand what immigration entails. We show videos about people we work with and sometimes even have immigrants testify in person. They describe how the FBI came into their house at two in the morning, forced them to get dressed at gunpoint, and left their small children at home alone while they were taken to detention. They tell stories of being transferred from one detention facility to another in shackles, without access to a judicial process.
Once they’ve heard these stories, people really do understand that the system is unfair. After one of my talks, a Caucasian military veteran approached me and said, “I had no idea.” And he wrote a check to support our work.
I often debate anti-immigration pundits on radio and . . . I ask whether they’ve ever tried to live a day without the services or food provided by an undocumented immigrant. You couldn’t do anything except sit, probably in a very dirty house or hotel room.
Ostrander: Does race come up in these discussions?
Jayapal: Race is a hard topic to talk about, especially for white audiences. The whole subject of immigration has become so polarized that people need a safe space to raise their fears without being immediately branded as “racist” or “anti-immigrant.” Sometimes I ask them to write down something they have heard someone else say about immigration, such as “Immigrants are taking our jobs.” Getting those ideas out in the open and being able to discuss them is important.
Even if not all immigration opponents are racists, there is an anti-immigrant faction that is absolutely racist and is controlling the debate. The Federation for American Immigration Reform [FAIR], one of the largest anti-immigrant groups in the country, has been labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “hate group.” Not just FAIR but all the sister organizations promulgated by its creator, John Tanton, have ties to racist beliefs.
Many immigration policies are also enforced along racial lines. The first anti-immigration law, passed in 1882, was race based. It was called the “Chinese Exclusion Act.” The policies themselves aren’t overtly racist anymore, but authorities still largely target people of color, the same way that Executive Order 9066, which established the internment camps during World War II, didn’t explicitly say to intern only Japanese Americans. OneAmerica has found that people from African and Muslim countries have much longer waits for their citizenship requests to be processed. And though there are a lot of undocumented Canadians in the United States, the INS doesn’t typically go after them.
Ostrander: Is it difficult to get your message across in contentious settings like conservative talk-radio shows?
Jayapal: It is tough to make those appearances. People often attack me personally. On the show you have to control your emotions, because the hosts want you to get angry. But you still have to be fierce about what you believe. I do it to try to reach those good people who differ from my point of view. I have to counter what the other side is saying to them. If I speak rationally, I can easily outshine arguments based on hate and fear. The debate isn’t just about passion; it’s about policies that make sense for this country, are in keeping with our values, and are good for our economy. I don’t want somebody to agree with me because they’re taking pity on an immigrant. I want them to see that immigration reform is the right thing to do.
Ostrander: Do you feel that you get through to those audiences?
Jayapal: I have had some listeners e-mail me after the show and say, “I never thought of it that way. I still disagree, but one thing you said made sense.” And that, to me, is huge. Even if people don’t change their minds, at least they get to hear a rational person presenting an opposing point of view.
Ostrander: Some might argue that it’s reasonable to constrain the rights of immigrants in order to secure the safety of the country as a whole. What’s your response to that?
Jayapal: It’s a slippery slope the minute you take away individual rights based on nationality or ethnic or religious background. In 1942 many people thought it was reasonable to lock up Japanese Americans. In the 1950s many people thought McCarthyism was reasonable. I once debated a Department of Justice official who argued that we need to track Arab and Muslim immigrants just as we now track sex offenders. But in the end the American public has always rejected the argument that we must suspend democracy for the protection of our citizens. Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Ostrander: Environmentalists have sometimes argued that increasing the population of the U.S. through immigration also increases consumption of the world’s natural resources. Is there anything valid about that argument?
Jayapal: I think it’s valid to say that American consumerism is taking a huge toll on the globe, but to turn that into a reason to oppose immigration is bizarre. I’m reminded of a policy that was under discussion when I lived in Singapore. Singapore’s government had decided that too many poor, uneducated women were having babies they couldn’t afford, so it offered to pay those women not to have babies. But one has to think, Why not use the money to educate those women instead? To solve a problem, we need to address its root cause. The environmental movement should be fighting consumerism and the misuse of resources, not fighting immigrants. And whether people immigrate here or not, the U.S. is exporting consumerism around the globe.
Ostrander: Most immigrants must feel a pull toward two different cultures: they’re here in the United States, seeking citizenship, but they also have another cultural history.
Jayapal: Yes, I spent many years struggling with that. I still do to some extent. Most immigrants have this sense of not belonging anywhere. They’re not necessarily American, but when they go back to their mother countries, they don’t really fit in there either. One of my Filipino-American friends said, “I live in the hyphen between those two words, Filipino and American.” That’s a very difficult place to be, until you recognize the rich and unique perspective it grants you.
Ostrander: What was your own experience with the U.S. immigration process?
Jayapal: I had it much easier than many of our clients at OneAmerica. But until I became a citizen, I never got rid of the fear at the border when I came home from traveling, because even if you have a visa, it’s not a guarantee that the border officials will let you into the country. My last experience with this was when I was in India on a fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. I was pregnant, and my son was born unexpectedly, three months early, while we were in India. He weighed one pound, fourteen ounces, and we didn’t know whether he was going to live or die. We couldn’t bring him home to the U.S. until his condition was more stable. During this ordeal the U.S. government told me that if I didn’t return right away, I would lose my green card and wouldn’t be allowed to reenter the country: you have to come back once a year to keep your green card current. But I couldn’t leave my son. I just couldn’t. So there was a chance, because I didn’t return when they said I had to, that I wouldn’t be able to come back with my son and his father. It was awful.
Finally the government officials allowed me to come back, but they took away all the years of residency I had accumulated, which would have qualified me for citizenship. I had to start all over again. In 2000, after I’d built up enough residency once more, I decided to get my citizenship, because I wanted never to be separated from my son.
Ostrander: What did it feel like to take the oath of citizenship?
Jayapal: I was expecting to be cynical about the ceremony. At that point, I’d lived here for eighteen years. I thought I would walk out feeling unchanged. But then I saw people weeping, and I imagined the situations they had come from and how hard they had worked to become U.S. citizens. There’s a point in the ceremony at which you have to renounce your birth country. I had a hard time doing that. How do you renounce the place where you were born and where your parents live? At that moment I teared up.
I think when I renounced my allegiance to India, it put pressure on me to make sure the U.S. really lives up to the ideals that make this country great — so great that people renounce their homelands in order to become Americans. People will sometimes call me “unpatriotic” or say, “If you don’t like this country, go back to your own.” And I always tell them that it’s because I love this country that I do this work. Dissent is patriotic.
When I renounced my allegiance to India, it put pressure on me to make sure the U.S. really lives up to the ideals that make this country great. . . . People will sometimes call me “unpatriotic” or say, “If you don’t like this country, go back to your own.” And I always tell them that it’s because I love this country that I do this work.
Ostrander: We’ve talked a lot about how the U.S. immigration system is unfair. Have you also seen the system work for immigrants?
Jayapal: Yes and no. For example, our lawsuit protesting the detention and deportation of approximately five thousand Somali immigrants had some initial success in the courts. It started in 2002, when five Somali immigrants were picked up by the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] to be deported, and their families and community members came to us for help. We filed a temporary restraining order and won, staying the deportation. Then we realized that Somalis around the country were getting picked up, put into detention, and flown out on night flights. So we did something unheard of at the time: we filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit on behalf of about five thousand Somali detainees across the country.
The INS wasn’t rounding up everybody who had final orders of deportation; they were focusing on Muslims and Arabs through the Absconder Initiative, a policy put forward after 9/11 that targeted immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries, including Somalia. There’s a rule that you can’t be deported back to a country that can’t accept you, and we argued that Somalia had no functioning government at the time. The U.S. government attorneys argued that these deportations were necessary in order to protect Americans, because Somalia was a hotbed of terrorism. The judge, Marsha Pechman, asked why, if these people were suspected terrorists, the government would send them back into a “hotbed of terrorism.” Why not keep them here, where we could watch them? The government attorneys had no answer.
So we won in district court. The government appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit, and we won again. And then the case sat there, because we were waiting for the outcome of a similar case brought by a man named Keyse Jama, which had come up through the Eighth Circuit ahead of our case and had now reached the Supreme Court.
We developed a relationship with Keyse, who began to call us regularly. He sometimes became disheartened by the length of the court proceedings. He’d say, “Why should I sacrifice myself? Maybe I should just go back to Somalia.” Many detainees from that case had similar feelings: after two years in a detention center, they wanted to give up, but they hung on, because if the case was won, it would be a victory for a huge number of people.
Ostrander: Why was Keyse being deported?
Jayapal: He’d committed a crime when he was young and had done his time, but he was still under a final order of deportation.
Ostrander: So you can serve a sentence for a crime and then years later be deported for the same offense. Isn’t that double jeopardy?
Ostrander: So what happened to him?
Jayapal: The Supreme Court ruled five to four against Keyse. It was a terrible moment when we heard about that ruling. Our staff was devastated. We had worked on that case for two years, and now the federal government could deport all of the plaintiffs in our class-action suit. And some of them have been deported since then. Others escaped to Canada.
And then there was a strange coda: The U.S. government chartered a plane and flew Keyse to Somalia, where they were met on the tarmac by the ruling warlords, who said, “This is an illegal deportation. We’re not accepting him.” Keyse called us from the tarmac. He said, “I guess I have to come back to the U.S.” [Laughs.]
Ostrander: Were there any positive outcomes from those two years of work?
Jayapal: I think the immigrant community felt that even though the ruling went against them, they had at least stood up for themselves. The case also showed that there were American citizens who would fight for immigrants’ rights. And through the media coverage, the general public began to understand that it is not appropriate to deport people back to a country where they can be killed in a civil war.
We also publicized the lack of due process. For instance, the U.S. government used a number of tactics to make our defense more difficult, such as moving our clients from detention center to detention center without telling us, so that we had difficulty getting attorneys who could stay with the cases.
Ostrander: Why would the government spend so much time and money to deport a group of immigrants from an impoverished, war-torn country?
Jayapal: I think a small but powerful anti-immigrant group with ties to the white-supremacist movement has made its way into the political sphere, placing people in strategic offices and supporting candidates in key races where they can affect the tenor of the public debate. About 130 members of Congress now get significant campaign funding from groups like fair and the Minutemen. The September 11 attacks were the perfect opportunity for such groups to call for controlling our borders — never mind that all of the 9/11 hijackers were here legally with visas.
Ostrander: Where is Keyse Jama now?
Jayapal: He’s free and working in Minneapolis. A few days after he was released, reporters asked him what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to ride the roller coaster at the Mall of America. So that’s what he did. I think about him screaming with the wind in his hair, finally enjoying his freedom. Later he sent me a card that I’ve kept. In it, he wrote, “If we had never met, I would have dreamed you into being.”
When we were filing that lawsuit, people said, “You can’t sue the INS. Nobody’s ever done that.” And I said, “Let’s try. The worst that can happen is that we won’t win.”
I think we have to dream what we want to see happen. And then we have to work for it.