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From Hussein to the Hoosegow

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Like other asylum seekers, the 36-year-old Abbod — who requested that his real name not be published — found his troubles far from over when he entered the United States to save his life and start a new one.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.”

From the start, Abbod’s case was a playbook for asylum-system deficiencies, which long predate the Bush administration. Asylum-seekers are supposed to get a “credible-fear interview” within 10 days. Abbod had to wait 84 days. Because the INS lacks adequate facilities, officials transferred him to a jail in Bakersfield, where they housed him with hardened criminals, even though Abbod had committed no crime. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when he doesn’t eat pork, guards served him a steady diet of the forbidden meat. He lost 32 pounds and grew ill. The incarceration also intensified terrifying memories of his tortures in Iraq.

Nor was it all remembered suffering. The torture left him with severe mouth pain, which was not adequately treated in jail. And for a time, he had to be hospitalized for back pain. He recounted in court papers that “I felt hopeless. I felt I had no future. I felt I was going to die there.”

Abbod gave up his deportation appeal in exchange for release from custody. Attorneys later took up his appeal on the grounds that he’d surrendered his rights under duress. Authorities remain opposed to Abbod’s asylum request, but when contacted, officials said it was against policy for them to comment on individual cases.

Abbod was unlucky; he could have been released from incarceration in days. (Like many asylum seekers, he was detained at the discretion of immigration officials.) He also could have had a more sympathetic immigration judge, rather than one who denied him asylum on the grounds that he was not credible. (Like many asylum seekers, he used false papers to escape and arrived in the U.S. with no personal documents or documented proof of his ordeals.)

Abbod was unlucky, but his case was hardly unique. Although immigration officials insist that the average detention time of asylum seekers is short, the data are disputed, and there’s no denying that some refugees spend considerable time in lockup. Last year, at least 9,000 refugees were detained. More than 8,600 applicants (many from past years) eventually got asylum through the immigration-court system. More than 18,200 had their applications denied.

Abbod’s fate was symptomatic of an underfunded, understaffed and disorganized Immigration and Naturalization Service, which bounced between helping immigrants and policing them, perennially unsure whether to treat refugees as victims or transgressors.

The mission has become clearer under the Bush administration. The old INS has been dissolved, with services to immigrants separated from policing functions. But the new order’s first priority, post–September 11, is security.

“We’re a country of open arms that was founded by immigrants,” said U.S. Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez, “and we will always be a country that welcomes immigrants as long as they do it in a legal manner. But one of our top missions, if not the top, is to ensure the safety of the American people by not letting in individuals seeking to harm the people that live here.”

The litany of recent security measures affecting immigrants is extraordinary, including new registration, check-in and fingerprinting rules; the denying of public access to hearings before immigration judges; eavesdropping on attorney-client conversations; and the drafting of local police as immigration officers, who, in Florida at least, can interrogate any person believed to be an alien on his right to be in the United States.

Elements of Abbod’s bad luck have just become official U.S. policy with March’s unveiling of Operation Liberty Shield. This initiative calls for the indefinite detention — until their cases are settled — of all asylum applicants if they come from nations where al Qaeda, al Qaeda sympathizers and other terrorist groups are known to have operated. Some 33 countries are thought to be included on the classified list, but the rubric is so general that any country on Earth would probably qualify.

A ruling last week in the case of 18-year-old David Joseph, a Haitian asylum seeker, underscored how the rationale for immigration restrictions has expanded. The Board of Immigration Appeals, hardly a liberal body, had approved granting bond to Joseph, agreeing to release him to his uncle pending the resolution of his case. But Attorney General John Ashcroft insisted that Joseph and other Haitians should stay behind bars on national-security grounds that had nothing to do with Joseph. Ashcroft asserted, for example, that Joseph’s release might tempt more Haitians to immigrate, and thus strain homeland-defense resources. (The ruling does not apply to Cubans, who are generally allowed to stay if they reach U.S. shores — perhaps because Cuban-American voters remain a key political constituency for President Bush.)

 

Critics, including a U.N. official, have accused Ashcroft and his policies of violating international treaties and protocols pertaining to refugees. One example they cite is Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects seekers of asylum. Ashcroft countered last week that the declaration, which the U.S. signed more than 50 years ago, “is merely a non-binding expression of aspirations and principles, rather than a legally binding treaty.”

Time and again, Ashcroft has justified restrictive policies on security grounds. In comments last month, he noted that law-enforcement efforts had resulted in the expulsion of five Iraqi diplomats. And on April 14, prosecutors charged the son of a former Iraqi diplomat with working in New York as an agent of the Iraqi Intelligence Service.

Immigrant advocates, however, consider Liberty Shield needlessly punitive. Although bad actors have taken advantage of asylum in the past, it’s become too difficult in recent years, said Ann Buwalda, an immigration attorney with Just Law International, based in Fairfax, Virginia. “Asking for asylum is not even remotely the way a terrorist would get in the country. There are so many easier ways. The minute you raise an asylum claim, there are fingerprints, a background check.” Not to mention temporary detentions that lasted at least until the credible-fear interview.

“I have clients with legitimate visit visas, and they also have legitimate cases for asylum. They’re terrified about what to say at the airport because they don’t want to get arrested.” Nor do they want to deny an interest in asylum and then have officials accuse them later of lying.

“Say they take an Iraqi aside and ask him, ‘Do you have fear for your life in your country?’ Even if he has a valid visa and friends in the U.S. and business to do in the U.S. and other valid reasons to be admitted, that person will be put into mandatory detention. It’s not right that individuals who have been persecuted would be put behind American bars when our country is supposed to be sympathetic to refugees. This is not going to catch terrorists, but will further victimize refugees.”

Of course, Department of Justice officials see enhanced security where critics see harassment and the violation of due process. Officials also point to swifter resolution of immigration cases as a hallmark of progress. The government went from handling 2,600 appeals a month in 2001 to processing more than 5,000 a month thereafter. The backlog of cases dropped from 56,000 in February 2002 to 37,900 in January. This reduction was accomplished by “streamlining” the appeal of decisions rendered by immigration judges. Instead of going before a three-person review panel, most appeals are now decided by one board member from the Board of Immigration Appeals. And the board member can affirm a decision without comment.

“The board had become a bottleneck in the system, undermining the enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,” said Attorney General Ashcroft last August. “Aliens’ cases were in limbo for years, and… such delays encouraged unscrupulous lawyers to file frivolous appeals. Even though they could not win, such lawyers could exploit the system to guarantee their clients additional years within the United States.”

In fact, the asylum system has been abused in the past — asylum applications, for example, exploded during a period when immigrants learned that asylum seekers could get immediate work permits. But that problem and other abuses have been addressed, say many immigration activists. Besides, they say, fixing flaws in the system should not come at the expense of increased suffering by refugees.

Critics find a deeper meaning in Ashcroft’s reforms. For one thing, Ashcroft has allowed the Board of Immigration Appeals to drop from 21 members to 16. And he plans a further cut to 11 — a plan not intuitively consistent with reducing the backlog of cases.

“We have heard that the folks who have been asked to leave were those who had dissented in more cases and were seen as more pro-immigrant,” said Nadine Wettstein, legal director of the American Immigration Law Foundation, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that advocates and litigates for immigrant rights. “The attorney general is attempting to remake the board in his own image — less generous toward immigrants’ claims, more anxious to deport people and to give fewer people asylum.”

The Justice Department spokesman insisted that “politics is not a consideration here.” When the board is reduced from 16 to 11, which could be within weeks, said Jorge Martinez, “we will look at keeping those board members who are effectively doing their jobs. That is the bottom line.”

 

The new policies are being challenged in court by the American Immigration Law Foundation and others. It looked as though Abbod’s attorneys would take them on as well. They’d gone to federal court to ask why new evidence was not being considered in their client’s case — medical reports about Abbod’s torture and the “death warrant” obtained by Abbod’s family in Iraq.

Abbod’s day in federal court is off for now, because the Board of Immigration Appeals has taken the case back, opting for a thorough review after all, with the full three-member review panel. In terms of representation, Abbod has been more fortunate than many refugees. The legal work necessary to get this far would have cost Abbod well in excess of $100,000 if attorneys Peter Afrasiabi and John Tehranian hadn’t donated their time. Like many asylum seekers, Abbod had spent his life savings in the journey to America, eating only once a day to stretch the money out as long as possible.

Uncertainty still clouds his future, including the impact of Saddam Hussein’s downfall on the asylum review. Abbod finally obtained a work permit pending the resolution of his case. He mans the cash register at a gas-station supermarket in Fullerton, working for another Iraqi. Abbod married a fellow Iraqi immigrant last year. His daughter, an American citizen, was born days ago.

“When I come here and the INS put me in jail a long time, the INS destroyed everything inside me,” said Abbod. “So now, I like only to get money to buy food and clothes for my family. I no longer have the same mind like before. But if I get asylum and am sure 100 percent that I will get my papers, I will go to school to learn English better. I will study hard in school to get my degree. I would like to be a teacher again.”


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