Editorials | At Issue | June 2005
|US Immigration Law as Anti-Terrorism Tool|
Mary Beth Sheridan - The Washington Post
Soul Khalil woke with a start. Her split-level home in Burke was shuddering, and the oppressive hum of a helicopter filled the room. Then she heard the pounding on the front door. "Police!" the voices yelled. She shook her husband. "Hassan! You hear that banging?" she later recalled saying.
|Flying flags from countries contributing to the fight against terrorism, President George W. Bush approaches the podium on the anniversary of the September 11th Attacks on the South Lawn. (Photo: Paul Morse)|
Her husband, in his shorts, stumbled into the hallway. At the end of it was a masked agent, his gun drawn. "Get down!" he yelled, according to the husband's recollection. The Lebanese immigrant dropped onto his stomach, and the officers cuffed his hands behind his back.
The charge: lying on his immigration documents.
Authorities rarely go to such lengths to snare an immigrant accused of fraud. The dawn raid last month was carried out by Homeland Security and FBI agents from a local Joint Terrorism Task Force, working with a SWAT-style team -- dispatched because federal officials had information that Khalil, 36, had had weapons training.
Khalil's arrest is part of a broad anti-terrorism effort being waged with a seemingly innocuous weapon: immigration law. In the past two years, officials have filed immigration charges against more than 500 people who have come under scrutiny in national security investigations, according to previously undisclosed government figures. Some are ultimately found to have no terrorism ties, officials acknowledge.
Whereas terrorism charges can be difficult to prosecute, Homeland Security officials say immigration laws can provide a quick, easy way to detain people who could be planning attacks. Authorities have also used routine charges such as overstaying a visa to deport suspected supporters of terrorist groups.
"It's an incredibly important piece of the terrorism response," said Michael J. Garcia, who heads Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. And although immigration violations might seem humdrum, he said, "They're legitimate charges."
Muslim and civil liberties activists disagree. They argue that authorities are enforcing minor violations by Muslims and Arabs, while ignoring millions of other immigrants who flout the same laws.
They note that many of those charged are not shown to be involved in terrorism, including Khalil, a cellular-telephone technician who was freed by a judge pending his immigration trial and denies any connection to terrorism. Federal officials said they could not discuss any national security aspects of the case because it involves an ongoing investigation.
"The approach is basically to target the Muslim and Arab community with a kind of zero-tolerance immigration policy. No other community in the U.S. is treated to zero-tolerance enforcement," said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and critic of the government's anti-terrorism policies.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, immigration agents were minor players in the world of counterterrorism. That changed during the investigation of the hijackings, when 768 suspects were secretly processed on immigration charges. Most were deported after being cleared of connections to terrorism.
Unlike that controversial roundup, most of the recent arrests have not involved secret proceedings. Still, they can be hard to track. A few cases have turned into high-profile criminal trials, but others have centered on little-known individuals processed in obscure immigration courts, with no mention of a terrorism investigation.
In some cases, the government ultimately concludes that a suspect, while perhaps guilty of an immigration violation, has no terrorism ties at all.
Authorities are often reluctant to disclose why an immigrant's name emerged in a national security investigation, because the information is classified or is part of a continuing probe. Homeland Security officials turned down a request by The Washington Post for the names of all those charged in the past two years, making it difficult to assess how effective their strategy has been at thwarting terrorism.
But a post-Sept. 11 aggressiveness is evident in dozens of immigration cases described by federal officials, defense lawyers and news accounts. For example, authorities have taken the unusual step of stripping some immigrants' U.S. citizenship. Officials are also using immigration charges to pressure people to provide information on Muslim organizations, several attorneys said.
This is an anti-terrorism effort fought largely behind the scenes, in the murky world of intelligence and informers, often barely visible in the court files of those charged.
Consider the case of Waheeda Tehseen.
Tehseen was a Pakistani graduate student when she immigrated in 1988 after spending a childhood in poverty near the Afghan border. Over the years, she acquired the trappings of a successful American life: a PhD in toxicology, a four-bedroom house in Fairfax Station and a $90,000-a-year job at the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA even presented Tehseen its "Unsung Hero" award for her volunteer work overseas with Afghan refugees.
But on Feb. 2, 2004, her success story abruptly ended.
Tehseen, then 46, was arrested and accused of lying on her naturalization application in 2001. The violation centered on one question: Have you ever claimed to be a U.S. citizen? No, Tehseen had checked. In fact, in 1998, she had accepted a job in EPA's pesticide division -- a position she knew was open only to U.S. citizens.
"I just had to have the job for my children," a weeping Tehseen said in an interview last year, explaining that she had been supporting three daughters and a son. She considered it "the tiniest error"; she had been a legal resident, and would become a citizen in 2002.
Authorities considered it part of a pattern of deception. They noted that Tehseen had also listed a phony employer, instead of the EPA, on her application in an apparent effort to disguise the lie.
The violations would probably never have been caught, but Tehseen came under scrutiny in a terrorism-related investigation. She said the probe apparently involved an orphanage she opened in April 2003 on the Pakistani-Afghan border, using funds from a Missouri-based group, the Islamic American Relief Agency.
Tehseen said the group had seemed to be a legitimate charity. But last October, the Treasury Department accused the agency's overseas branches of helping fund Osama bin Laden.
Several of Tehseen's colleagues defended her assertion that she was interested in charity, not Islamic radicalism. Federal prosecutors, however, apparently believed Tehseen could provide information. She said federal agents questioned her about the Islamic charity, the Taliban and al Qaeda, and authorities offered to go easy on her immigration-fraud charge if she became an informant.
Federal officials declined to comment on that investigation, saying the information is classified. An official close to the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that a deal was discussed but provided no details.
Tehseen declined the offer because, she said, "I'm not an FBI person who can go and sneak in and find out who's right and wrong." She was deported last August and is working on environmental projects in Pakistan.
Muslim activists say cases such as Tehseen's show that the government is scouring the immigration papers of Arabs and Muslims it considers suspicious.
"They see people they want to get, [and] they look in their records until they find something they can get them on," said Arsalan Iftikhar, legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Homeland Security officials say they are not focusing on any ethnic or religious group.
"We're targeting people who our investigation shows are involved in some type of activity" that could jeopardize national security, Garcia said.
ICE officials say they have used immigration laws to take dangerous people off the streets. For example, Nuradin Abdi, a Somali immigrant living in Ohio, was locked up on an asylum-fraud charge in November 2003. He was subsequently charged with plotting with an al Qaeda member to blow up a shopping mall. He has pleaded not guilty.
ICE officials also point to cases in which they have deported active supporters of terrorist groups, including at least two men who had attended guerrilla training camps in Pakistan.
All cases with a terrorism connection are handled through the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces, ICE officials said.
Authorities say they sometimes turn to immigration charges rather than terrorism charges because a case might be based on classified information that they cannot reveal in court without damaging other investigations. Sometimes they face other legal barriers.
For example, ICE agents alleged in federal court in Alexandria that investor Soliman S. Biheiri had done business through the mid-1990s with a leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which is on the U.S. terrorism list. But the statute of limitations had expired.
Prosecutors instead charged Biheiri with putting false information on his citizenship application. Biheiri, an Egyptian immigrant, has denied any improper dealings with Hamas. He was convicted and was sentenced to a year in jail, and is to be deported soon.
Homeland Security officials say immigration charges are being used much as they have been for years against drug traffickers -- as a tool to lock up suspects, gain informants and obtain search warrants. But some legal experts caution it can be harder to identify a terrorist than a narcotics kingpin.
"So much of national security threat analysis is guesswork," said Bo Cooper, who was general counsel of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service. Authorities will often have worrisome information "but not nearly enough to prove this person is a terrorist. . . . So whether it's legitimate depends on whether the person appears to be a risk, and whether he indeed violated immigration laws."
Some say the new focus in the immigration bureaucracy is long overdue. Bill West, a Miami-based immigration agent who handled national security cases in the 1990s, recalled urging the agency's leaders to make counterterrorism a higher priority. "It all fell on deaf ears," said West, who is retired.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, there were only 50 immigration agents on Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country, according to the Sept. 11 commission, which has criticized the immigration service for being slow to embrace a role in counterterrorism.
Today, the task forces include more than 200 such agents, who report to a bustling ICE Counterterrorism Section in downtown Washington. Since ICE was founded in March 2003, more than 500 people have been charged with immigration violations -- either in criminal or immigration courts -- after an initial report linking them to a terrorism or homeland security threat, according to an agency spokesman, Dean Boyd.
Some of the immigrants faced other criminal charges. Boyd emphasized that some immigrants were found to have no connection to terrorism.
Boyd provided the estimated total after The Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the number of cases and the immigrants' names and countries of origin. The agency denied the request, saying the data had not been compiled in any existing documents.
Among those accused of immigration fraud are at least 10 naturalized Americans, according to a tally by The Post based on court records, ICE documents and news reports. Khalil is among them. According to the charges, he failed to acknowledge in his 1999 naturalization application that he had been arrested and ordered out of the United States eight years earlier for overstaying his student visa.
Khalil disputes the accusation. He said he obtained a document in the early 1990s shielding him from deportation because of the war raging in Lebanon. He married his wife, a U.S. citizen, in 1994 and became a legal resident.
But the case is about more than a 14-year-old deportation issue.
Khalil said he was visited over a year ago by FBI agents who asked whether he knew of any threats to the United States and whether he had ties to Hezbollah, or Party of God, the armed Shiite Muslim movement that the U.S. government considers a terrorist group.
Khalil said he knew no members of Hezbollah in the United States but did in south Lebanon, where it is now a major political party. Agents asked him again during his arrest last month whether he knew of anyone intending harm to this country, he said.
"If I tell you I know nobody involved in Hezbollah, I'm a liar. It would be like saying I live in D.C. and never see a black person," Khalil said in an interview. He said he acknowledged to the agents that he had learned to use arms in Lebanon during the war, which he said was common.
Khalil added that he has been told several times in U.S. airports that his name is on a "no-fly" list, but that he has always been cleared to board.
Boyd, the ICE spokesman, said he could not comment on any national security aspects of the case. He said authorities used the helicopter and SWAT-style team because Khalil had had weapons and martial-arts training. "We have to be safe," he said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa C. Buchanan released Khalil pending his trial, stating that the immigration charge appeared "rather weak."
Although Khalil was charged in criminal court, many others are tried in the immigration court system, which is part of the Justice Department. Immigration lawyers have raised concerns about using such courts in terrorism-related cases, because they provide fewer legal protections for the accused. For example, those charged do not have the right to an attorney, and they may be detained even after a judge has ordered them freed on bond.
"There's no key to the jailhouse door when Immigration's got you," said Malea Kiblan, an immigration lawyer in Northern Virginia.
That was the complaint of one of her clients, Ibrahim Abdullah, who was charged last year with violating his student visa by holding a job. The arrest was part of an investigation by the local terrorism task force.
Law enforcement officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they had a strong immigration case against Abdullah, a Saudi PhD student at George Mason University. They said he had received checks for thousands of dollars from the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, or WAMY, whose Falls Church office was founded by a relative of bin Laden's. The group has been under scrutiny for possible terrorism ties, officials say, although there has been no allegation of a crime. The group denies any such link.
Abdullah said that the money was reimbursement for supplies he had bought, and that he was simply a volunteer. He insisted he had no need to work, because he had a scholarship and a $3,000-a-month stipend from the Saudi government.
Immigration prosecutors indicated they would oppose bond for Abdullah, Kiblan said. That meant he could spend months in jail, because even if an immigration judge ordered his release, a post-Sept. 11 regulation allows the government to stay such decisions during an appeal.
Abdullah decided to plead guilty to the immigration charge.
"They scared me. I'm not used to the jail," Abdullah, 42, said in a telephone interview from Saudi Arabia, where he is a computer science professor. He was deported last July.
Researchers Julie Tate and Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.