Community meets with U.S. Assistant Attorney General over civil rights

By Nick Meyer
DEARBORN – The BRIDGES program has been a major channel of communication for the Arab American, American Muslim and Chaldean communities with government and law enforcement agencies in expressing their concerns about post-9/11 challenges, but many of them have continued to linger and have even grown in complexity in recent months.

Perez (2nd from left) speaks with community leaders from various segments during Tuesday’s meeting.
PHOTO: Nafeh AbuNab/TAAN?
On Tuesday, April 17, representatives from those communities and others including immigration officials had another chance to voice their concerns, this time to Thomas Perez, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.

Perez said he was thankful for the chance to meet with leaders and to address their specific concerns.

“I truly do believe that this is a model of how to ensure constructive dialogue,” he said. “I’ve said to many groups I’ve met across the country that the best way to solve problems is to have open lines of communication.”

Event emcee and BRIDGES co-founder Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee-Michigan thanked the roughly 100 prominent guests for coming and set the agenda for the day which included discussions on vital topics regarding government profiling.

Despite Perez’s initial upbeat approach, the frustrations of various community leaders could be heard in their voices especially in light of recent revelations involving issues such as alleged, deeply troubling Border Patrol harassment of American Muslims and a pending lawsuit by the Council on American-Islamic Relations over the issue, more reports of FBI spying on Muslims, and ongoing issues regarding immigration and charitable donations among others.

“We’ve been working together and we can solve this but we need to see actions,” said Ned Fawaz, president of the Lebanese International Business Council, who was thankful for the positive dialogue but noted that it hasn’t netted the results the communities need to see.

“It seems like we’re prisoners, we can’t travel or do anything without someone right on our back (since 9/11).”

Perez earlier had begun his address to the group with a positive tone about strides made but also noted there are serious problems with discrimination.

“So much work has been the result of a rock solid partnership with federal colleagues,” he said. “Undeniably we’ve made progress with so many metrics such as fair housing, fair lending, making the courts accessible to all including people with limited English proficiency…”

He also noted that procedures can be changed through feedback, saying the original policy changes following the attempted bombing of a Detroit flight by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab by Border Patrol were like a “blunt instrument” that was too strong and later tweaked to be more precise. He also touted the advances made by the Obama administration through the signing of an anti-hate crimes bill in 2009.

He said about 45,000 local law enforcement personnel have been trained by the department in order to prevent hate crimes and profiling.

Despite strides in those areas, community members have been frustrated by many recent issues. For example, Muslim community leaders in attendance strongly questioned the FBI’s inclusion of FBI training materials that depicted Muslims as out-of-touch simpletons and reinforced stereotypes.

Perez addressed the issue of the manuals in a matter-of-fact way.

“…It’s impossible to overstate the disappointment, anger and embarrassment I, Barb (McQuade, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan who was in attendance) and others felt when we read about the training manuals, it was an undeniable embarrassment and black eye,” he said.

“I was with the attorney general (Eric Holder) the day after and he was very forceful in saying this is not who we represent and what we are about.”

Perez later appeared at a town hall event at Wayne State University sponsored by the Arab American Civil Rights League co-hosted with Bankole Thompson, editor of the Michigan Chronicle, about civil rights in a multi-cultural society.

Many of the community leaders in particular believe that the civil rights problems have only worsened among minorities, however.

Perez seemed to think the same, noting a spate of hate crimes against many immigrants particular in the Muslim, south Asian and Sikh communities. He also noted the high number of zoning-related cases involving places of worship, mostly mosques, citing 28 in the past two years. Ramsay Dass of the American Middle East Christians Congress also noted that an Arabic church in the area had been defaced as well.

Perez reiterated the importance of dialogue to help the department tackle specific problems in a coordinated matter. Hamad reiterated that trust is the crux of the issue, and trust has been hard to come by, especially within the American Muslim community. Perez stressed continued cooperation.

“When I was with the largest non-profit serving immigrants in Maryland, we worked to be in a partnership but also to hold the government accountable and we hope that you will continue to do that,” Perez said. “We may not agree on all the solutions that flow from the challenges you identify…But we hope that you’ll continue to bring these issues to our attention.”