ACLU challenges Patriot Act

Suit includes East Tennessee religious-based refugee service

By Thomas Wilson

   The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a legal challenge to the U.S.A. Patriot Act, and one of six organizations included in the lawsuit as a plaintiff is a Knoxville-based religious ecumenical refugee sponsor service.
   ACLU filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan naming Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller as defendants. According to the ACLU, six plaintiffs from across the country have clients and members who believe they are currently the target of investigations because of their ethnicity, religious, and political associations. One of the plaintiffs is Knoxville-based Bridge Refugee and Sponsorship Services -- a religiously ecumenical, nonprofit organization that settles refugees in Tennessee.
   According to the ACLU lawsuit, Mary Lieberman, executive director of Bridge, was allegedly approached twice by FBI agents seeking information about Iraqi refugees. The second time, the FBI served Bridge with a subpoena for all records relating to its Iraqi clients, according to the ACLU. Because the FBI subpoena served on Bridge was not issued under the Patriot Act, Bridge was able to fight it in court, the lawsuit states.
   Lieberman was not available for comment on Thursday, according to the Bridge office in Knoxville.
   ACLU representatives say they are taking aim at a section of the law that expands the power of FBI agents to secretly obtain records and personal belongings of people in the United States, including citizens and permanent residents.
   Founded in 1982, Bridge works with denominations and faith communities in the Chattanooga, Knoxville and Tri-Cities areas of East Tennessee. Bridge resettles refugees through Church World Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries. The organization's main office is located in Knoxville and satellite offices are located in Bristol and Chattanooga.
   "We bring refugees from around the world to be resettled in East Tennessee," said Carolyn Miller, director of the Bridge suboffice in Bristol. Miller referred questions about the lawsuit to the organization's Knoxville headquarters.
   Bridge became a visible presence in the area after the break up of what is now the former Yugoslavia when thousands of refugees were displaced by regional warfare among ethnic groups. Ann Curtis of the Chattanooga suboffice said the largest number of refugees coming to Chattanooga were from Bosnia, Ukraine and Vietnam.
   Over 350 refugees from Bosnia, Cuba, Sudan, Vietnam, and the Ukraine have been resettled in Cleveland and Chattanooga since the opening of the Chattanooga office in 1996, according to Bridge. The organization states its current goal is to resettle 80 refugees per year.
   "Bosnians and a lot of others re-emigrated here from other places such as Chicago," said Anne Curtis with the Chattanooga office of Bridge.
   In a statement released Wednesday, Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the national ACLU and a lead attorney in the lawsuit, said Americans should not have to worry that the FBI is "rifling through their medical records, seizing their personal papers, or forcing charities and advocacy groups to divulge membership lists."
   President Bush signed the U.S.A. Patriot Act (USAPA) into law in October 2001. ACLU states that Section 215 of the law gives the FBI investigative power that severely compromises the Fourth Amendment rights of political refugees.
   According to the Patriot Act, Section 215 permits a federal court order for the production of any business record from anyone for any investigation. The law prohibits the FBI from investigating a U.S. person solely for First Amendment activities. Under current law, only records of common carriers, public accommodation facilities, physical storage facilities and vehicle rental facilities can be obtained with a court order.
   The ACLU alleges the section was specifically intended to authorize the FBI to obtain information about innocent people and further alleges the section is being used against minorities and immigrants disproportionately.
   In addition to Bridge Refugee and Sponsorship Services, the groups participating in the lawsuit are Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor, Mich., which operates a mosque and school; the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn, Mich., that operates a medical clinic as well as a center for refugees and torture victims; the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Council on American-Islamic Relations, both based in Washington D.C.; and The Islamic Center of Portland, Masjed As-Saber, which operates a mosque and school in Portland, Ore.
   The United States accepts a limited number of refugees each year. This number is determined by the President in consultation with Congress. In fiscal year 2000, for example, 90,000 refugees were permitted to come to the United States.