By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It took a lot to make Ali Abbod leave Iraq for America: losing his career as a teacher; more than 20 separate jailings for suspected political activism. And the tortures — being beaten so hard that his teeth shattered; watching his brother suffer brain-damaging electric shocks.
The journey to America was risky, too. A dash into the Kurdish north, a fake passport into Thailand, where he had to trust a shadowy figure who took his money and documents.
But finally, on November 18, 1999, Abbod landed at Los Angeles International Airport and asked for political asylum. “I choose the United States because the government knows everything about Iraq’s government and the Iraqi people and that they suffer long time from Saddam Hussein’s regime,” said Abbod in broken English. “I believe I will live in this country free.”
The land of the free promptly took Abbod into custody — for more than 14 frequently harrowing months, during which an immigration judge ordered his deportation. Abbod was spared immediate expulsion only because the U.S. had no diplomatic ties with Iraq.
Like other asylum seekers, the 36-year-old Abbod — who requested that his real name not be published — found his troubles far from over when he entered the United States to save his life and start a new one. His experience offers evidence that the U.S. is complying with neither its policies nor its principles — nor with international protocols regarding the humane treatment of refugees who seek a safe haven.
Government officials concede problems, but also contend that they are doing better on all counts. They point to a faster resolution process for immigration cases and more effective homeland-security measures related to immigrants. Critics counter that new security measures unnecessarily burden asylum seekers and deny them due process under the law — without truly enhancing domestic safety. Some advocates go further, suggesting that recent policy changes are more in line with an anti-immigrant agenda than the pursuit of efficiency and security.
When Abbod appealed his deportation order, he got a quick answer all right — a one-sentence ruling upholding the original ruling. In the past, his case could have warranted more extensive review. Abbod was never remotely cited as a security risk, but that didn’t keep him from being imprisoned like a convicted criminal.
“We’re getting rid of this evil Hussein regime,” said Peter Afrasiabi, an Orange County attorney who represents Abbod, “and we’re liberating the Iraqi people. But the very same sort of person we’re liberating over there, we need to be liberating here.”
Although Abbod opposed the Iraqi regime, he had never been politically active in Iraq, judging it too dangerous. Officials arrested him anyway, because of political activity by his relatives. In April 1993, according to Abbod’s sworn testimony, security forces arrested six of his cousins; two were quickly executed. Abbod and his brother were jailed, then interrogated and beaten over a six-day period. During one beating, his teeth were shattered. Bone fragments lodged in his gums, and a “dentist” was brought in to remove them with pliers.
Interrogators threatened to kill Abbod’s family, and he also had to watch his brother suffer electric-shock treatments. He thought he’d witnessed his brother’s murder. Months later, after his unexplained release, he learned that his brother had survived, but not intact: “Before he was a handsome guy, a nice guy. He likes life. He jokes with everybody. Now, you don’t believe he is the same guy. He don’t talk with anybody. He accepts talking only from my mom. But he never talks. He’s destroyed.”
The government directed the local technology institute, where Abbod had taught, to fire him, and it also continued to harass him, arresting him about 20 more times — the arrests typically following anti-government activity in the region of his southern Iraq home.
Abbod bribed a local official to avoid military service, which is unpaid, in part because his work as a merchant supported his family, and in part because he didn’t want to participate in brutalizing his own people. On July 1, 1999, his name came up again for military service. This time, he said, he was to report to Baghdad, where he could have been executed or maimed for avoiding military service. That’s when he decided to flee.
Although it’s impossible to verify Abbod’s entire account, his tale conforms with what’s known about how the Hussein regime operated. Abbod’s attorneys also have supplied notes from an American dentist who examined the injuries to Abbod’s teeth and concluded it likely that Abbod had been tortured. A psychologist, in turn, provided a declaration that Abbod suffers from post-traumatic stress, also consistent with torture. More recently, his family in Iraq paid a $50 bribe (which can be more than half a year’s salary in Iraqi dinars), to get a copy of the Iraqi government’s warrant for Abbod, which, if he’d been captured, could have resulted in his execution.
Abbod never expected that his longest stint in detention would occur in the United States. “They take me from airport to jail,” recounted Abbod. “I feel like I don’t leave Iraq.”