When Anti-Poverty Programs for Immigrants Are Used to Bolster the Surveillance State

Waqas Mirza

Imam Sheikh Sa'ad Musse Roble (4th L), President of World Peace Organization in Minneapolis, MN, and other city representatives listen during a roundtable discussion of the opening session of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism February 17, 2015 at Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign rhetoric demo­niz­ing refugees and immi­grants reached its apoth­e­o­sis as he arrived in the state of Min­neso­ta last Novem­ber. Dur­ing a ral­ly, the then-can­di­date decried the pres­ence of Soma­li refugees in the state, declar­ing that Min­nesotans had suf­fered enough” from admit­ting them. Here in Min­neso­ta you have seen first­hand the prob­lems caused with faulty refugee vet­ting, with large num­bers of Soma­li refugees com­ing into your state, with­out your knowl­edge, with­out your sup­port or approval,” Trump said.

While Trump’s brazen fear mon­ger­ing was con­sis­tent with his cam­paign rhetoric, his tone was noth­ing new for the state’s Soma­li com­mu­ni­ties — long tar­get­ed by insti­tu­tion­al racism and stigmatization.

Min­neso­ta is host to the largest Soma­li pop­u­la­tion in the coun­try, con­cen­trat­ed most­ly in the Twin Cities of Min­neapo­lis and St. Paul. Like many oth­er immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, Soma­lis in the state are con­front­ed with a pletho­ra of social and eco­nom­ic needs and receive lit­tle-to-no help from state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment agen­cies. Com­mu­ni­ty-led orga­ni­za­tions that seek to fill the gap con­stant­ly strug­gle with a lack of fund­ing and resources.

After nine young men in Min­neso­ta were charged with involve­ment with the Islam­ic State, law­mak­ers seized on the devel­op­ment to ramp up a counter-ter­ror” crack­down on the state’s most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents by tar­get­ing their very means of sur­vival. Some state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment offi­cials argued that social ser­vice pro­vi­sion may pro­vide an answer to pre­vent­ing extrem­ism” with­in the Soma­li community.

In March 2016, six groups work­ing on con­flict pre­ven­tion, employ­ment edu­ca­tion and train­ing, men­tal health, restora­tive jus­tice, and after-school sports were award­ed fed­er­al and pri­vate grants under the Oba­ma administration’s Coun­ter­ing Vio­lent Extrem­ism (CVE) ini­tia­tive. A bill cur­rent­ly being con­sid­ered by the state’s law­mak­ers seeks to invest $2 mil­lion in youth devel­op­ment ini­tia­tives with the hopes that it would pre­vent ter­ror­ist recruit­ment in the state.”

The fund­ing under CVE has had to con­tend with harsh crit­i­cism from the same Soma­li com­mu­ni­ty it is sup­posed to help. Last year, the West Bank Com­mu­ni­ty Coali­tion, an orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing the Cedar-River­side neigh­bor­hood of Min­neso­ta, pub­lished an open let­ter denounc­ing CVE fund­ing for stig­ma­tiz­ing us as a result of the false premise that a person’s Islam­ic faith deter­mines their propen­si­ty toward vio­lence.” It demand­ed that the Soma­li com­mu­ni­ty receive fund­ing and social ser­vices the same way every oth­er Min­neso­ta com­mu­ni­ty receives them,” rather than through law enforce­ment agencies.”

Local activists also charge that fund­ing under CVE has not only made no appre­cia­ble dif­fer­ence in assist­ing the Soma­li com­mu­ni­ty, but has instead per­pet­u­at­ed the sys­temic bar­ri­ers to their suc­cess. Accord­ing to Ayaan Dahir, a local orga­niz­er with the Young Mus­lim Col­lec­tive, CVE has­n’t been that help­ful to the gen­er­al pub­lic. Pure­ly from a finan­cial point of view, it’s a very small amount of mon­ey for a large num­ber of peo­ple.” The orga­ni­za­tions that have tak­en CVE fund­ing, like Big Broth­er, Big Sis­ter which promised to pro­vide youth men­tor­ing pro­grams, have so far failed to offer any­thing of sub­stance. I can­not tell you of a sin­gle per­son who has ben­e­fit­ted from CVE,” Dahir Says. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, Burhan Israfael Isaaq, anoth­er local orga­niz­er with Peo­ple Pow­ered Progress, believes CVE is tar­get­ing the spe­cif­ic issue [of extrem­ism],” and there is no real effort to fund and sup­port orga­ni­za­tions which have deep roots with­in the local Soma­li com­mu­ni­ty and the capac­i­ty to make a dif­fer­ence. The com­mu­ni­ty is not being heard,” he says. 

More wor­ry­ing­ly, both orga­niz­ers point out that fund­ing under CVE has an extreme­ly detri­men­tal impact on the lives of Soma­lis in the state. I think pro­vid­ing social ser­vices under CVE is dan­ger­ous and irre­spon­si­ble,” says Isaaq. Instead of gen­uine­ly solv­ing any prob­lems [the com­mu­ni­ty] may have,” says Isaaq, such fund­ing instead high­lights the com­mu­ni­ty itself as a prob­lem and as unique­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to vio­lent extremism.

Dahir adds that this cre­ates a real­ly skewed, one-dimen­sion­al per­cep­tion of the Soma­li com­mu­ni­ty” to the point that any time our name comes up, it’s always about ter­ror­ism or extrem­ism.” Such stigma­ti­za­tion then trans­lates over to how peo­ple are able to get work or hous­ing, or access health­care, when you’re labeled a ter­ror­ist or extrem­ist. It trick­les down to every oth­er facet of your life.”

Remark­ably, the fund­ing is con­tin­u­ing apace with­out any evi­dence of its effec­tive­ness. As the for­mer U.S. Attor­ney for Min­neso­ta Andrew Luger put it in an inter­view, We had to try some­thing that would at least help the com­mu­ni­ty. If it helps lessen ter­ror recruit­ing, obvi­ous­ly that was the goal, but if it did­n’t, it was still good for an impor­tant and vital part of the over­all Twin Cities community.”

CVE-relat­ed fund­ing is only meant to address the eco­nom­ic and social needs of the Soma­li com­mu­ni­ty inso­far as it would pre­vent extrem­ism. It under­mines the actu­al needs of a mar­gin­al­ized and under­served pop­u­la­tion by sub­sum­ing it under the rubric of nation­al secu­ri­ty. The prob­lems of lack of hous­ing or men­tal health ser­vices are no longer con­sid­ered issues of social and eco­nom­ic need when they con­cern the Soma­li com­mu­ni­ty. They are instead looked at as nation­al secu­ri­ty threats. Soma­li Mus­lims are marked as excep­tion­al, deserv­ing of eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty and social ser­vices only because they may become vio­lent otherwise.

Such an approach also allows for the con­tin­u­ing retreat of the state from uni­ver­sal wel­fare poli­cies while under­min­ing the basis for sol­i­dar­i­ty between Soma­lis and oth­er com­mu­ni­ties. Ade­quate health care, men­tal health ser­vices and edu­ca­tion and employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties are con­ceived of not as rights but as ways to solve a problem. 

Waqas Mirza is a writer and activist based in Mass­a­chu­setts. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @waqasahmi.
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