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Restoring rights
Legislators act to restore civil liberties in post 9/11 America

Pouya Bavafa
July 27, 2004

On June 16, those concerned about the endangerment of civil rights in post-9/11 America welcomed the introduction of the Civil Liberties Restoration Act (CLRA) (S. 2528 and H.R. 4591) to the Senate and the House of Representatives. The act seeks to curtail certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, which many believe to have compromised the personal freedoms of American citizens, residents, and visitors alike.

Proponents of the CLRA (Human Rights Watch, the Arab American Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, among others) contend that many aspects of the legislation enacted in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2002, have unfairly scrutinized and targeted the immigrant community while doling out harsh penalties for minor technical infractions.

Supporters of the bill cite as evidence the Justice Department's Inspector General Report on individuals detained for reasons related to the 9/11 attacks. Since the attacks, the document discloses, the government has unjustly detained hundreds of people with no ties to terrorists or terrorist activity. Some of these individuals have not been allowed to contact family, consult legal counsel, or otherwise enjoy the full protection of their civil liberties.

In accordance with these concerns, the objectives of the CLRA include to: end the government's ability to issue a blanket order closing all deportation hearings to the public and to family members of detainees; eliminate penalties deemed too strict for minor infractions addressed in the PATRIOT Act; ensure due process for individuals detained on suspicion of immigrant violations; establish an independent immigration court; ensure that individuals charged with a crime based upon national security provisions of the PATRIOT Act have appropriate access to the evidence against them; require that the government produce continual reports on its data-mining activities to ensure the protection of civil liberties; limit the covert seizure of private databases and individual records to cases in which the government has demonstrated a reasonable connection to a suspected terrorist or terrorist group.

The IAPAC is especially supportive of Section 301 of the CLRA, regarding the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). The NSEERS system mandates extensive surveillance and documentation of nationals from countries perceived as national security risks, and it includes exit controls that will enable law enforcement officers to remove foreign visitors who overstay their visas. Sec. 301 calls for:

* The termination of the NSEERS program.
* The administrative closure of all removal proceedings against aliens that have come about as a result of the NSEERS program.
* The right of any alien who has received a final order of removal as a result of the NSEERS program to file a motion to reopen the removal proceeding and apply for any relief he or she may be eligible to receive.

The House version of the CLRA is sponsored by Representatives Howard Berman (D-CA) and Bill Delahunt (D-MA). The Senate version is being sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Russell Feingold (D-WI), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and Jon Corzine (D-NJ).

On the other hand, Republicans have introduced to Congress legislation increasing the stringency of immigration laws and governmental control over immigration in order to counter terrorism. Two such bills are the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal (CLEAR) Act (H.R. 2671) and the Stop Terrorists Entry Program (STEP) Act (H.R. 3075).

These acts - both of which emerged in 2003 - call for various measures, including: the expansion of responsibility over immigration laws to state and local authorities; the collection and submission of information about violators of those laws to the government; the increase in penalties for violations of immigration law; the refusal of entry to the United States of individuals from states deemed to be sponsors of terrorism.

However, as the Civil Liberties Restoration Act illustrates, growing concerns in Congress about the potential and actual excesses of governmental powers have resulted in various attempts to curtail the dangerous provisions of the PATRIOT Act. Other legislation includes the Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act (S.1709) and its counterpart in the House of Representatives, the Otter Amendment (H.R.3352), which nullifies a section of the PATRIOT Act authorizing federal agents to conduct covert searches of private residences without notifying the occupants for an undetermined period of time.

Additionally, the "Protecting the Rights of Individuals" (S.1552) and "Freedom to Read Protection" (H.R.1157) Acts of 2003 both aim to limit some of the powers given to government agencies under the PATRIOT Act.

Notably, support for these bills has extended beyond party lines. The SAFE Act was introduced by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Larry Craig (R-DI) and currently has 19 cosponsors; the Otter Amendment was introduced by Rep. C.L. Butch Otter (R-ID) and passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 309 to 118; the "Protecting the Rights of Individuals" Act is sponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Ron Wyden (D-OR); the "Freedom to Read Protection Act" was introduced by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and currently has 145 cosponsors, although it recently met defeat in an intense House battle.

The immense, multi-party support for these measures demonstrates the growing concern among Americans of all political ideologies that many of the policies imposed by the government in reaction to 9/11 have posed a real and serious threat to their constitutional liberties. If you feel the same way, you can write to your representatives in Congress and inform them of your concern about the endangerment of personal liberties in present-day America.

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