When the FBI Knocks: On Citizenship and Suspicion

Shortly after the first bombs fell on Baghdad, the FBI began interviewing Iraqis living in the United States. I was one of those people, even though I’m not Iraqi and never have been. More on that in a minute.

My father is Indian, my mother Czech. With the exception of a six-year stint in Italy, I’ve lived in New York City since I was 2. I’m about to turn 46.

On May 9, 1997, in a building in Lower Manhattan, I stood shoulder to shoulder with other immigrants, raised my right hand, and, as part of the naturalization oath of allegiance to the United States of America, renounced all loyalty to foreign princes, potentates, et al. and promised to defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies.

Foreign and domestic.

But back to that day in early spring 2003 when an FBI agent came to my apartment building in Brooklyn and, when he couldn’t find me, left his business card with my wide-eyed Midwestern neighbor with a request to call him. My name landed on the FBI’s list because I was born in Baghdad.

My father was a United Nations official stationed in Iraq when I was born. My parents’ foreign citizenship meant I could not be an Iraqi national, under local law. My father registered me as an Indian citizen. And if that wasn’t enough, his de facto diplomatic status would reinforce that.

Our family left Iraq in 1975 and came to New York, where Dad continued his work in the U.N. I remember nothing of Iraq and have never returned. New York is my home.

My mixed racial and cultural heritage has mostly been a blessing. Though I’ve experienced discrimination, suspicion, and racial profiling both here and abroad (and even in my father’s homeland), I don’t dwell too much on those ugly incidents because I’ve largely lived a life of privilege and shelter.

Instead, I folded those experiences into my intellectual and emotional hard drive, which powers my outlook.

I was nervous about talking to an FBI agent. I was almost irrationally afraid that an item in my digital paperwork was amiss or that I might say something NBD about my family but is suspicious to a fed.

In the end, the agent who interviewed me over the phone was courteous. I explained my family history and my utter disconnect from all things Iraqi. That was it. The experience itself was relatively painless. But something about it troubled me.

I wondered about the thousands of Iraqi Americans who didn’t share my background. The ones whose first language was not English, like it is for me, the ones who didn’t have an Ivy League education or a former-diplomat father or a job with the local media. I worried about the Iraqis who might have had trouble verbalizing their background, or who didn’t have a lot of lawyer friends, or who didn’t hang the Stars and Stripes on a wall in their home.

The FBI concluded its interviews with more than 10,000 Iraqis and Iraqi Americans within a few weeks. The agency said the process provided “useful information,” and that it received complaints from only two people.

Perhaps most of them handled the questions well, and the FBI did get useful information that was passed along to the Pentagon for the war effort. But what was the point, really?

Once he understood that I never was an Iraqi citizen, the agent asked me very little beyond would I be comfortable contacting the FBI if I witnessed or learned of anything “suspicious” or “useful”? I said sure but that I was unlikely to find myself among suddenly radicalized brown people. OK, I didn’t phrase it that way but that was the clear implication.

The agent also asked if I’d been a victim of a hate crime since 9/11 (I hadn’t) and told me to call him if I did.

I haven’t called.

I remember the agent’s name and still have his card. I harbor no ill will. He had a job and he did it respectfully. With me.

My mother, who grew up under the totalitarian rule of a Communist government, was far angrier. Talking to an FBI agent for a few minutes on the phone is nothing when others face far worse. Every day. Again and again.

When I was younger, I used to carry a pocket-sized book of the text of the United States Constitution. I was more idealistic back then and I thought of it as a badge of honor that would symbolically shield me, as both an immigrant and a journalist, from the skepticism of or challenges to my patriotism, “Americanness,” and rights under the First Amendment and more.

I’ve read that $4 3-by-6 pamphlet a few times. It is sophisticated and simple, revolutionary and regressive. Bold and reticent. Despite its power, it has proven to be a vehicle for the pursuit of an ideal and not a true shield against injustice.

Many years have passed since May 9, 1997 — the day I affirmed my loyalty to that document and to the country, and the world, it envisions.

Many years have passed since March 23, 2003 — the day I answered John Ashcroft’s questions, when, during a painful and divisive war, my country thought I might, just might, have been its enemy.

As I figuratively clutch the Bill of Rights, now and forever, I could revel in that earlier date and forget the latter.

But I won’t.


Connect with me here.

Arun has survived TV news, print and digital journalism, and book publishing. He is also a certified running coach and a licensed New York sightseeing guide.

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