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Immigrants' Stories Reflect 'Human Cost' of Terror Policy

September 14, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

A Bangladeshi store owner was robbed. A Mexican worker was fired and can no longer afford health care for a serious kidney disease. A Lebanese American student was beaten by skinheads and a Pakistani immigrant was evicted from his home.

At first glance, the stories may seem like random episodes in the gritty underside of urban life. But they were woven together Saturday at a Los Angeles forum to present personal testimonies on how immigrants and minorities have been adversely affected since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The Public's Truth" event marked the second of half a dozen stops on a national tour by the Applied Research Center, an Oakland-based think tank that examines how public policies affect immigrants and non-white communities. The forum at First A.M.E. Renaissance Center included 11 testimonies on how people's daily lives have been changed during the war on terrorism, followed by responses from such public officials as Los Angeles City Councilman Martin Ludlow.

"While there has been attention on the need to increase national security, what hasn't been investigated is how these policies have extracted a human cost on people's lives," said Gina Acebo, the center's program director.

In addition to gathering testimony about hate crimes against Muslim, Sikhs and Arabs, which have been documented by such agencies as the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, Acebo said the center has also found what she called a "spillover effect" of heightened intolerance toward immigrants in housing, workplaces and other arenas.

In housing, for instance, Marlene Garza of the Housing Rights Center in Los Angeles described efforts to represent 13 tenants against Donald Sterling of Beverly Hills Properties for allegedly demanding their birthplace information. A Pakistani client, she said, was evicted a week after the Sept. 11 attacks and his landlord allegedly cited "tensions in the Mideast" as a reason.

The forum's moderator, Robin Toma of the county Human Relations Commission, told the diverse crowd of more than 150 people that terrorism presented a clear danger to the United States. But, he said, "we clearly need to change the culture so concern for national security does not translate into discrimination" against immigrants and minorities.

Law enforcement officials were invited but did not attend, forum organizers said.

Many speakers described a new fearfulness in their lives. Mujibur Raman Baval, a Bangladeshi immigrant, described how two men entered his Vermont Avenue grocery store in November 2001, shoved a gun into his gut, called him a "bloody Arab Muslim" and threatened to kill him. Baval said he was so traumatized by the attack that he sold his business at a substantial loss and is still suffering.

Others described how national security operations had affected their lives. Harold Lugo, a Colombian immigrant, was fired from his job at Los Angeles International Airport after officials discovered his illegal status during "Operation Tarmac," a multi-agency sweep of airports nationwide. He is facing deportation.

In one particularly poignant moment, Lugo waved a sheaf of papers attesting to his diligence and character during a decade in America: adult education certificates, letters of appreciation for his church work and educational achievement awards for his children.

"Are we bad for this country? Are we wrong?" he asked.

In his response to the testimonies, Ludlow pledged to work for alternatives to what he called "very regressive" policies to promote public safety and security. As one example, he cited a program he started that helped reduce crime by 27% in one Southwest Los Angeles neighborhood by bringing in a carnival of games, movies and hip-hop classes.

Union leader Maria Elena Durazo and Imam Saadiq Saafir of the Ilm Foundation, an Islamic nonprofit, urged the crowd to continue efforts to unify across barriers of religion and race to demand a fair-minded approach to the war on terrorism.

"Violations of basic human rights continue to take place every day because our stories are not connected," Durazo said.

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