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A Doctor in the House 

The asylum case of a Pakistani physician that no one wants to touch

Thursday, Jun 12 2003
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Barbed wire surrounds the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration processing center in El Centro, where Pakistani physician Ahmad Imran has been fighting deportation from the United States for 15 months.

Rows of buses line up outside the teeming federal detention center in this desert town in the southeasternmost corner of California, waiting to take the dejected to the nearby Mexican border or to an American airport. Inside a trailer, the din of the mildewy air conditioner is heard over whispered chatter between detainees and their lawyers or their visitors. Most conversations concern when a relative will be deported. Everyone in here wears a sad face.

The 35-year-old Imran is an anomaly in a facility where most of the 398 detainees and their visitors are impoverished Mexican nationals. Many got caught crossing the border or with drugs. But Imran is a trained cardio-thoracic surgeon, a Shiite Muslim born to a prominent family in Lahore, Pakistan, a judge’s son who entered the country legally and overstayed his visa.

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The doctor is more than a visa violator. He is a man in fear for his life in his native country because of an attack by Sunni Muslim extremists. Yet authorities do not appear sympathetic and may be wary of him, though they offer no information to confirm any suspicions. An uncanny series of misfortunes and missteps has landed and kept him here.

While hundreds of Muslim men languish in federal detention centers throughout the country, the reason Imran is here is only partly related to 9/11 hysteria. His most serious problems began pre-9/11, when his brother was involved in an assault in San Bernardino. It foretold the fear and discrimination toward Muslims that now threaten Ahmad Imran’s future.

And, unlike secret detainees whose names the government has refused to release, many lawyers outside El Centro know of Imran, yet none so far has been willing to untangle his convoluted immigration case, which took a sharp turn for the worse the day he met a phony lawyer named Harold Goldstein.

Goldstein, 58, of Newport Beach, is a convicted felon and con artist with a 30-year rap sheet. Authorities believe he has defrauded possibly hundreds of people in need of immigration-law services throughout Southern California. He posed as David Goldstein, a real attorney from Northern California, and accepted payment to draft legal documents while allowing clients to represent themselves in court.

In addition to Imran, whom he left hanging before the most important hearing of the doctor’s life, Goldstein has been indicted by a federal grand jury and is accused of defrauding 67 detainees at the federal detention center in El Centro, many of whom have been deported.

Fear of deportation has driven Imran to make a number of decisions that have backfired, with consequences he says he neither intended nor imagined.

On the surface, Imran is an unlikely suspect for anything nefarious. He graduated from King Edward Medical College, Punjab University — a top medical school — in 1993. Sources in Pakistan confirm that he is registered and licensed to practice basic medicine there. In 1998, he went to live with a distant cousin in Dundee, Scotland, while he studied to take his advanced surgical-licensing examinations at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Officials at the Royal College of Surgeons confirm that Imran is just two examinations shy of an associate fellowship, a highly prized medical degree in Pakistan. “Being a physician is a profession that gives you the power to help someone,” Imran says. “It’s God’s help and you’re his tool.”

But in late 1999, the doctor gave up his medical career to try to help his brother, who had run afoul of the law in the U.S. In fact, the day the U.S. Border Patrol picked up Imran, he had just paid a visit to his youngest brother, who is locked up in Calipatria State Prison, less than 50 miles from El Centro, doing 19-to-life for aggravated mayhem.

Ahmed Adnan Chaudhry came to the United States to pursue graduate business studies at California State University, San Bernardino, in the fall of 1999. Before that, Imran says, his brother lived a sheltered life with his parents in Lahore. “He was not much exposed to the outside world,” Imran says. “He was naive, even in his home country. He never raised his voice, rest aside talking bad about someone.”

On the night of November 30, 1999, just weeks after arriving in the United States, Chaudhry slashed the face of a young Kenyan man with whom he shared an apartment, in a bizarre incident that inflamed the community and incited a heated debate over religion. San Bernardino prosecutors eventually charged Chaudhry with waging “personal jihad” against his roommate, who had blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad, and Imran stood by in disbelief as a jury convicted his brother and authorities hauled him off to prison.

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