Race, Civil Rights, and Immigration Law after September 11, 2001: The Targeting of Arabs and Muslims

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Cyra Akila Choudhury and Khaled A. Beydoun




Cambridge University Press




September 11, 2001 was a watershed moment in the history of the United States. After the tragic events of that day, including the hijacking of four commercial airliners for use as weapons of mass destruction, America went to “war” on many fronts, including but not limited to military action in Afghanistan.

As needed and expected, heightened security measures and an intense criminal investigation followed. Almost immediately after the tragedy, Arabs and Muslims, as well as those “appearing” to be Arab or Muslim, were subject to crude forms of racial profiling. Airlines removed Arab and Muslim passengers, including, in one instance, a Secret Service agent assigned to protect President George W. Bush. Immediately after September 11, hate crimes against Arabs, Muslims, and others rose precipitously. In Arizona, a US citizen claiming vengeance for his country killed a Sikh immigrant from India based on the mistaken belief that this turban-wearing, bearded man was “Arab.”

Supporters and critics alike saw the federal government as “pushing the envelope” in restricting civil liberties in the name of national security. The civil rights deprivations resulting from federal action reveal that national regulation of immigration is a double-edged sword. Federal preemption of state law is designed to create a uniform immigration law and frequently has served to prevent local discrimination against noncitizens. However, the federal government can also, with few legal constraints, strike out at immigrants across the nation if it sees fit. That suggests that the federal government’s role in the regulation of immigration and immigrants, as well as its interaction with the states, deserves most serious attention, especially in times of national crisis.

Besides acting on a national scale in the “war on terrorism” that followed September 11, the federal government took steps that might also have future civil rights consequences. In the investigation of the hijackings, the Department of Justice enlisted the assistance of state and local law enforcement agencies in the questioning of Arabs and Muslims. As part of heightened security measures, the Bush administration considered permanently increasing the role of local police in immigration enforcement, which would represent a significant departure from the near-exclusive federal dominance over this field. Because local police are generally unfamiliar with the immigration laws, they have been involved in well-known episodes of egregious violations of the civil rights of US citizens as well as noncitizens in efforts at immigration enforcement. As a result, state and local involvement in immigration enforcement might have lasting civil rights impacts on immigrants in the United States.

The federal government’s response to September 11 demonstrates the close relationship between immigration law and civil rights in the United States. Noncitizens historically have been vulnerable to civil rights deprivations, in no small part because the law permits, and arguably encourages, extreme governmental conduct with minimal protections for the rights of noncitizens. Unfortunately, the current backlash against Arabs and Muslims in the United States fits comfortably into a long history, including the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s, the Palmer Raids and the Red Scare that followed World War I, and other concerted efforts by the US government to stifle political dissent. This backlash is especially troubling because of the possibility exemplified by the internment of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II that racial, religious, and other differences have fueled the animosity toward Arabs and Muslims.

A complex matrix of otherness based on race, national origin, religion, culture, and political ideology may contribute to the ferocity of the US government’s attacks on the civil rights of Arabs and Muslims. As recently stated:

Most Americans probably feel particularly threatened because the September 11 suicide hijackers were foreign, and some may be especially fearful because they were Arabs. This fear may cause us to exaggerate the danger of future attacks in general, and of attacks by Middle Eastern terrorists in particular. As a result, we may overestimate the effect of racially specific security measures. And unfortunately, we are more willing to accept aggressive measures when they target small and politically disempowered groups, specifically racial and ethnic minorities, and foreign nationals.Footnote1

As has occurred in the past, the ripple effects of national security measures in the end may adversely affect the legal rights of all noncitizens, not just Arabs and Muslims. Indeed, we contend in this chapter that the civil rights deprivations resulting from the war on terrorism may have long-term adverse impacts on the civil rights of citizens as well as noncitizens in the United States. As Professor Edward Said has observed, terrorism in these times “has displaced Communism as public enemy number one.”Footnote2 That has translated into a near exclusive focus on “foreign terrorists,” particularly Arabs and Muslims.

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