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
In between her visits to San Bernardino over the next year, during which they often stayed with friends they met through the mosque, McRae and Imran remained in daily contact by telephone and e-mail. They planned to marry on April 21, 2002, the doctor’s birthday. However, those plans were scuttled by the doctor’s detention outside Calipatria State Prison, on April 13, 2002. McRae was in San Bernardino, staying with a friend at the time, when she received a call from immigration officials. “I didn’t know what INS was,” she says.
At the federal detention center in El Centro, FBI agents interrogated Imran over the course of two days, he says, focusing on his medical training and the Pakistani medical system, at one point asking whether he knew how to make anthrax. It would be months before the doctor crossed paths with the fake lawyer Goldstein. For now, he retained an attorney with the American Law Center in Riverside, and in the days leading up to his first immigration hearing, on May 16, 2002, asylum finally had become a more attractive option. For $2,100, the attorney, a man named Sanjay Sobti, prepared an asylum petition that McRae says left the doctor feeling vulnerable.
“[Sobti] showed up for the hearing at the last minute, and Ahmad [Imran] got nervous,” McRae says. “It was clear that this lawyer did not put much into the [asylum] petition, no case law. Nothing.”
Imran fired Sobti on the spot and represented himself, stumbling over basic questions asked by the immigration judge with the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a division of the Department of Justice.
Judge: “Do you have family in the area?”
Judge: “It says here you have a brother in Calipatria State Prison.”
Imran: “I thought you meant wife and kids. They are in Pakistan. I am divorced.”
Judge: “Where did you receive your medical training?” ‰
Judge: “It says here you trained in Scotland.”
Imran: “Where I’m from we call that England.”
Judge: “You are too well-educated not to know to make that distinction. I find your story lacking credibility.”
The doctor later waffled by seeking a voluntary return to Pakistan, or to Canada, to be with Heather, whom he married inside the detention center on May 25, 2002. She officially converted to Islam the following day, at an El Centro mosque.
His request for voluntary departure was denied.
Then, Harold Goldstein came along with all his grifter charm and took the doctor for $3,200 and fumbled his appeal for asylum, which the Bureau of Immigration Appeals denied, on October 31, 2002.
“Goldstein was really charming and charismatic,” Imran says. “He made you believe what he wanted you to believe in. I trusted him with my life.”
Now, as Imran languishes on his bunk inside the detention center, after making an unsuccessful petition for release in U.S. District Court, officials will not say whether he is a flight risk, a danger to the community or a material witness in the Goldstein case. New stringent guidelines dictated by the Justice Department make it unlikely that he will be released on bond.
On April 9, a federal judge ordered him back to the immigration trial court for a determination of his status. However, by midweek, he still was without a lawyer, with no trial date set. “I’ve been writing letters to the director of this facility, but I get no reply,” Imran said last week in a telephone call monitored by federal officials. “I have a legitimate asylum case and contacts who will provide surety. There are people in this place who commit crimes, and for $5,000 they get released on bond. But not when it comes to me.
“I just want to get out of this place.”
Organizations from the ACLU to the American Immigration Lawyers Association in San Diego have declined to come to the doctor’s aid. The case is too complicated for overworked immigration clinics, and Imran can’t afford a private attorney. Fausta Albi, an immigration lawyer in San Diego, is troubled by the doctor’s case, but says she cannot take his case for business reasons.
Albi has reviewed the doctor’s file, though. “Dr. Imran did not file his asylum petition within a year of entering the country,” she says, noting also that the law requires asylum seekers to offer proof to substantiate their claims of persecution in their home country. So far, she says, it seems that Imran’s proof amounts to his word. “If you do not seek asylum within a year, then you cannot be that afraid to go home.
“I think there’s more,” Albi says. “There must be something going on there.”
Imran attributes his failure to renew his visa and his delayed attempts at seeking asylum on post-9/11 trepidation. In a faxed response to questions on May 28, he writes: “This escalated eastern hatred towards America made me more fearful of returning from this country to Pakistan. I decided to wait and keep a low profile, because I believed that if I made a request for asylum during heated post 9-11 days, I could be deported or seen as one of those terrorists who America now hated.”