In the weeks after 9/11, many Arab and Muslim immigrants were awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of FBI agents knocking on their doors. Nationwide, the government imprisoned 762 immigrants, who became known as the “September 11 detainees.” Sixty-four percent were from New York City; one third were Pakistani. None was charged with terrorism-related crimes, although most were deported for violating immigration law. In November 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft called for the interrogation (“voluntary interviews” in Department of Justice parlance) of up to 5,000 immigrants from countries known to harbor terrorists; five months later, the department announced plans to question 3,000 more Arabs and Muslims.
In New York City, no neighborhood was harder hit than Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan. Before 9/11, Mohammad Razvi owned a 99-cent store on Coney Island Avenue, Little Pakistan’s main street. After 9/11, the area became a ghost town. While some residents had disappeared into immigration jails, many more left the city on their own, fleeing to Canada or back to Pakistan. And after the federal government announced its “Special Registration” program in 2002—which required male visa holders from Pakistan (and 24 other countries) to be photographed, fingerprinted, and questioned—there was a second exodus.
Razvi eventually sold his store and opened a nonprofit called COPO across the street, giving the neighborhood free legal help. Today his office doubles as a sort of unofficial museum. A red plastic inmate bracelet sits on a side table, once worn by a college student wrongly detained in a New Jersey jail. He keeps a white binder stuffed with post-9/11 surveys of area residents. A 13-year-old girl wrote, “This lady called me a terrorist and made killing signs.” And on Razvi’s desk, he has the business cards that were left in doorways all over the neighborhood, each with same job title: FBI Special Agent.
From the archives
• Peter King’s Muslim Problem (New York Magazine, March 6, 2011)
• Hamid & Sons (New York Magazine, September 28, 2008)