I'm a former New Yorker and current constituent of Ilhan Omar — this is why I stand with her

I'm a former New Yorker and current constituent of Ilhan Omar — this is why I stand with her

I would like to start this piece by sharing three facts about myself.

First, I am a former New Yorker who was in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

Second, for approximately five years, I represented individuals placed in deportation proceedings after complying with an alleged “Muslim Registry” program created by the U.S. government shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

And lastly, I am currently a resident of Minneapolis and a constituent of Rep. lhan Omar (D-Minn.).

Since I have such unique ties to the things she has said, I feel a particularly strong obligation to speak up in defense of my congresswoman.


On 9/11, I was a first-year student at Columbia Law School, located in Upper Manhattan. Even though the attacks occurred nearly 20 years ago, any time the fall sky is a clear cloudless blue, I am immediately transported back to that grim Tuesday when the beautiful weather did not match the collective fear and sadness everyone in New York felt that day.

Even more tragic than the collective trauma to those in New York City and Washington, D.C., that day, the 9/11 attacks resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people and illness in thousands more.

I witnessed the aftermath firsthand when I served as an immigration adviser to the New York Interfaith Disaster Services (NYDIS) 9/11 Unmet Needs Roundtable, a coalition of private donor agencies who provided individual cash assistance grants to cover the living expenses of first responders and Ground Zero cleanup workers too sick to work. (Ignored in the recent media coverage is the fact that Omar is already a co-sponsor of a bill renewing the 9/11 victim compensation fund, while several of her vocal critics in Congress have yet to publicly support this legislation). These experiences have made me particularly sensitive to the devastation caused by the attacks and I hope our country never experiences another tragedy of that magnitude again.

However, as noted by Rep. Omar in her recent remarks to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the aftermath of 9/11 saw a dark response by our government that disproportionally targeted our Muslim friends and neighbors. I saw some of these actions firsthand when I was hired by Lutheran Social Services of New York (LSSNY) to represent men who were placed in removal proceedings after complying with the National Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) Special Registration Program.

Under the NSEERS Special Registration Program, men from predominantly Muslim countries and North Korea were required to register their presence with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

While the Special Registration portion of NSEERS was suspended by DHS in 2003, approximately 13,000 men, including my clients, were placed in removal proceedings after completing registration. My work on behalf of these clients culminated in an unsuccessful appeal to the 2nd Circuit challenging the legality of the NSEERS Program on statutory and constitutional grounds.

Unfortunately, the NSEERS Program was not the only post-9/11 action taken by our government negatively impacting Muslim communities. On Oct. 26, 2001, a little over a month after the attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act, a law that, in practice, led to the disproportionate chipping away of civil liberties for Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities. More recently, there was the travel ban, which, like NSEERS, predominantly impacted individuals from Muslim majority countries. Like our unsuccessful challenge to NSEERS in the 2nd Circuit, in June 2018, the ban was upheld by the Supreme Court on national security grounds.


While I cannot speak on behalf of everyone who was in New York City on Sept. 11, I will say, as someone who was there that day, I was not offended by Omar’s comments nor do I believe she intended to minimize the horrific impact of the attacks. Moreover, her statement about the impact of the attacks on the U.S. Muslim community is true. Nearly 18 years ago, 19 men did a terrible thing and millions of Muslims in the U.S. and around the world continue to pay the price.

To this day, Sept. 11 remains the most frightening day of my life. For three years, I sat on a weekly panel and heard the stories of individuals who became sick from exposure to toxins at Ground Zero. I know all too well what a catastrophe the 9/11 attacks were.

The words “Never Forget” likely hold more meaning for me than for many now criticizing the congresswoman. But the aftermath of the attacks also drove home the importance of preserving the core values of our democracy, namely protecting our civil liberties and the rights of all in the U.S. This is why I stand with Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSenate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Overnight Defense & National Security — DOD watchdog to review extremism screening Omar calls for closure of Guantánamo Bay prison after 20 years of 'lawlessness and cruelty' MORE.

Ana Pottratz Acosta is an assistant teaching professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul specializing in immigration law. Pottratz Acosta is a 2004 graduate of Columbia Law School and a former supervising attorney with the Lutheran Social Services of New York, Immigration Legal Services Program.