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.
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.
Chaudhry claims he acted in self-defense.
In many ways, Imran’s downfall began when his brother got into trouble. After his brother’s arrest on charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon, Imran traveled back and forth between Pakistan and the United States. An Islamic scholar and law professor at UCLA, who has met Imran and his brother, believes the brother was railroaded in a trial laced with fear and discrimination, and that the doctor has been deeply affected, if not radicalized, by the treatment his brother has received.
But while the doctor’s 15-month stint in this off-the-radar detention facility appears centered around his brother and his own dubious immigration status, his story gets even weirder under the hot lights and the roving eye of the Homeland Security apparatus, particularly during a time when the government’s legitimate concerns result in fear and paranoia in Muslims who have overstayed their welcome.
How much of Imran’s trouble is bad luck and how much is of his own making remains unclear, however. By his own admission, his decision to marry a Muslim convert of Canadian citizenship — who is an aircraft-maintenance engineer — has alienated his own family.
In February, a reporter with the Imperial Valley Press came to interview Imran. The soft-spoken doctor with thin graying hair and almond-shaped eyes told the reporter that his whole life was “flipped over” one night, when he and his other brother were attacked by Muslim extremists in their hometown of Lahore.
On the night of August 13, 2000, five Sunni Muslims on motorcycles surrounded him and his other brother, Ahmad Rizwan, and threatened them at gunpoint, Imran says. He had received anonymous phone calls threatening his life in the past. “Next thing I know, I had a gun to my head,” says the doctor in fluent English tinged with an accent. “Suddenly, I got so scared.”
The doctor says the men pulled him from his car, pushed him against a wall and threatened to kill him. His brother Rizwan, a captain in the Pakistani army, tried to come to his aid and was struck several times by the assailants, he says. Several days later, Imran left to seek asylum in the United States, where his desire was to continue practicing medicine in safety. “I came to the United States because it believes in human rights,” Imran says. “But it’s hard to sleep when you have the fear you are going to be deported and killed right away.”
News reports confirm the basis of the doctor’s fears, that Sunni extremists have targeted Shiite physicians for assassination in the sectarian strife that has plagued Pakistan. According to a CNN.com report last year, more than 70 doctors have been murdered over the past decade in Karachi alone. An official with the Pakistan Medical Association is quoted as saying that specialists in particular have been migrating to other countries to escape the violence.
Prosecutors in Lahore corroborate these reports. In a letter of support for Imran dated December 10, 2002, Deputy District Attorney Ahmed Maqbool Tahir wrote, “I can personally attest to the current conditions in Pakistan that have led [Dr.] Imran to evacuate as well as request that he not be returned. Governing agencies are well aware of the plight of our physicians being targeted [by] these organized terrorist groups. As [physicians] in Pakistan, they have legitimate concerns regarding their safety.”
Imran appears to have left Pakistan without filing a police report or notifying the government or his family of the attack at the hands of the Sunnis, however. He entered the United States in New York, via the United Kingdom, then flew to Los Angeles and took up residence at the Islamic Center of the Inland Empire, a mosque in Rancho Cucamonga, in San Bernardino County.
The doctor did not seek asylum right away. Instead, he obtained a nonresident visitor’s visa, on October 25, 2000, and applied for labor certification and began studying for U.S. medical-licensing exams.
But in fact, Imran had come into the country once before, in February 2000. While residing at the same Islamic center in Rancho Cucamonga, he had come to help his brother and sought assistance from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which had set up a legal-defense fund for his brother. The doctor had posted a message on the Internet titled “A Pakistani Needs Your Help.” It read: “Adnan Chaudhry was falsely implicated in a murder attempt case as a Muslim fanatic who had come to the U.S. with the sole intent of carrying out this crime . . . Being his elder brother I have come here to help him out of this tragic situation.”
The doctor returned home to Pakistan in August 2000 because his visa had expired, he says, and within days the Sunni extremists attacked him, causing him to flee to the United States.
With Adnan Chaudhry’s trial looming in late November of that year, Imran again turned his attention to the defense of his brother, who also received support from members of the local Muslim community. Although the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington were a year away, an atmosphere of distrust and hatred toward Muslims already existed in San Bernardino, witnesses say.
Cal State officials had assigned the frail-looking Chaudhry to an apartment with three other graduate students. Two also were international students: Peter Eganza and Evans Kahuthu, from Kenya. A few weeks had passed when Chaudhry, who, like his brother, is a Shiite Muslim, felt some tension with the Kenyans, who speak Arabic but are Christians.
In addition to the standard roommate squabbles over phone use, the students argued about the bombing attack by Muslim extremists on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, on August 7, 1998. They also carried on about the eating habits of Chaudhry, who obeyed the Muslim prohibition against pork.
There are two versions of what happened between the roommates on the night of November 30, 1999. The version that the jury “bought in a heartbeat,” according to San Bernardino deputy district attorney Michael O’Connell, is that after arguing about Chaudhry’s refusal to eat pork, Eganza made a blasphemous remark about the Prophet Muhammad that sent Chaudhry to the kitchen, where he heated up a knife on the stove until it was red-hot and came after Eganza shouting, “Allah akbar” (“God is great”), and slashed him several times in the face and neck, leaving him scarred for life.
Chaudhry faced charges of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated mayhem. At trial, San Bernardino defense attorney David Call argued that Chaudhry had heated up the knife to cleanse it after the Kenyans had cut pork with it, and that Eganza and Kahuthu jumped him from behind and forced his face onto the stove burner. Call maintained that Chaudhry reached backward with the knife and stabbed Eganza in a defensive motion, out of fear he could be maimed.
The fourth roommate, a Chinese-American student named David Wei, testified that he had sensed trouble and hid in his room before the violence broke out.
Chaudhry was convicted of aggravated mayhem, on December 12, 2000, and sentenced to 19-years-to-life. Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of law, human rights and Islamic law at UCLA, who testified on Chaudhry’s behalf, says that questions about whether Chaudhry acted in self-defense were overshadowed by issues of religion that inflamed the jury.
“It seemed the state from the get-go was laboring under the assumption that if you offend Muhammad, a Muslim will automatically declare ‘personal jihad,’” says El Fadl, a prolific author and vocal critic of Muslim extremism. According to the professor, there is no such thing as “personal jihad” in Islamic law or in the Muslim faith. “The prosecutor O’Connell seemed like some kind of redneck,” he says. “He used every opportunity to put religion in the minds of the jury.”
Yet Chaudhry’s defense attorney played right into the prosecutor’s hands, El Fadl says. “David Call is this guy who wears cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and has a huge belt buckle,” he says. “At first I thought he could deal with O’Connell on the same level, but then he would launch into these totally irrelevant speeches about Muslims being a peace-loving people. He should have made appropriate objections and dissected the evidence instead of making speeches with religious overtones.”
Call, a former deputy prosecutor, says the case has “haunted” him. “Chaudhry never should have been put in with two Kenyans who are Christians and who hated his guts,” he says. “Is he a Muslim? Oh my, yes. Is he some extremist? I think he is some frightened young kid who got pushed and shoved by two guys that were bigger than him and he fought back and got carried away.
“I think the CIA should recruit him and send him back to Pakistan to spy on all that extremism and hatred being taught to kids over there.”
Imran’s parents had seen firsthand what kind of atmosphere their youngest son would be tried in, when they visited earlier in the year, El Fadl says. According to the professor, the parents were in a state of shock over what was happening. Yet Imran had remained calm and asserted himself on his brother’s behalf, El Fadl says. “I was impressed by the family,” he says. “They were educated, rational and gentle.”
After watching his brother go to jail, Imran remained in the area, and tried to move on. When his visitor’s visa expired, on April 24, 2001, however, the doctor neglected to apply for a new one. “I was told I would not get an extension,” he says. “So I waited to get my labor certification.”
He still elected not to seek asylum. Yet he had no intention of returning to live in Pakistan. He attributes what he did next to love.
The same month his visa expired, Imran divorced his wife in Pakistan, who is his first cousin and the mother of his two sons. He had met someone else, a woman named Heather McRae. McRae, 32, was raised a Mennonite Brethren Christian in Kelowna, British Columbia. Married once and divorced, she is a graduate of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia with a technical degree from Northern Lights College in aircraft-maintenance engineering. She chose to become an aircraft-maintenance engineer, she says, because her ex-husband said it was a man’s, not a woman’s, job.
Imran met McRae, who has dyed blond hair with brown roots showing and crow’s-feet around her eyes, on a Microsoft Network Islam chat room in January 2001. She was converting to the Muslim faith and recovering from a bout with cancer. She came down from Canada to San Bernardino in March of that year, and the couple went on their first date, she says: a three-day tour of Disneyland, Universal Studios and other tourist attractions.
McRae fell in love with Imran because he was “soft-spoken and intelligent — he gets his point across in conversations,” she says with a Canadian accent. The doctor says he fell in love with her because she is “a real kindhearted person, compassionate, and really understanding.”
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.”
The doctor’s wife, who now goes by Heather Imran, has remained by her husband’s side throughout his ordeal, returning periodically to Canada to preserve her own visitor status. When she is not in Canada or visiting her husband in El Centro, she spends time at a nearby sporting-goods store, not far from the detention center, where a friend allows her to use the computer. Or she stays with friends in San Bernardino.
She acknowledges that her professional training is an unfortunate aspect of the couple’s situation. “I know what this looks like,” she says. “I know what I’d think. But you can’t choose the people you fall in love with sometimes, ya know?”
Imran’s choice to divorce his Muslim wife in Pakistan and marry Heather has not met with his parents’ approval, the doctor says.
In May, an L.A. Weekly correspondent — who also is a Pakistani physician — visited Imran’s parents, Salamat Ali and his wife, a retired history professor, at their home in Lahore, in a serene residential colony for government officials. During that interview Ali said that something was different about his oldest son when he returned to Pakistan in August 2000. “For some unknown reasons that he never uttered to us, [Imran] kept saying that he must return to U.S.,” Ali told the correspondent. Asked whether he was concerned about his oldest son, he replied, “Not at all. His case is of minor overstay, that, God willing, will be settled soon.”
Ali did not appear to know exactly what was going on with his son. He said he did not know that his son had remarried in the United States. He denied that his son is separated from his Muslim wife in Pakistan, much less divorced. He knew nothing about his son being attacked by extremists in Pakistan. Ali said that maybe the doctor received some anonymous threats, but later backtracked and said only that his son had been acting strange before he left.
But “strange” is a relative term considering the compounded troubles of Dr. Ahmad Imran, who explained it this way in his May 28 letter: “Regarding my departure from Pakistan, my dad’s statement that he did not know the reason was lost in translation and wrongfully understood. What he said was that he did not know how my reason would constitute my motive.” Imran goes on to explain in his letter that his motive in leaving Pakistan was to “give the events time to cool off, apply for labor certification and file for amnesty.”
Over the telephone the doctor adds that in his culture a son asks for his father’s permission to marry, which he did not do. “My father was upset about Adnan [Chaudhry],” he says. “I did not want to give him [an] extra burden.”
Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, who has learned to mistrust 80 percent of the stories he hears from asylum seekers, sees the doctor’s dilemma as partly of his own making but born out of his brother’s conviction. “I suppose it is possible that Dr. Imran becomes radicalized by the discrimination his brother has suffered and comes back seeking revenge. However, it is more likely that [Imran] feels guilt and returns to fight for his brother. Under those circumstances, it is not unrealistic to invent a story of being attacked by Sunnis or to start searching for a bride.”
For the time being, U.S. officials are not willing to shed much light on their investigations. And they don’t seem too concerned that the media are starting to ask questions. “How do you know [Ahmad] Imran and [Adnan] Chaudhry are really brothers?” says Lauren Mack, a spokesperson for Homeland Security.
Meantime, in Lahore, Salamat Ali and his wife remain most concerned about their youngest son, even though their other son, Ahmad Rizwan, was severely beaten in Pakistan recently by Islamic extremists. Imran says the attackers mistook Rizwan for him. While Salamat Ali keeps his opinions to himself, the doctor’s mother exhibits less stoicism. She passes most of her time praying for her sons in the United States, she says. When asked how she feels about them being imprisoned in a foreign land, she looks down and starts sobbing. “Tell Ahmad [Imran] to come back to Pakistan, enough is enough,” she says.
Then there is her baby, Adnan Chaudhry, who she says used to wake up early in the morning and sleep at his mother’s feet, but who now is doing hard time in one of the most violent prisons in California. “I am a woman, so I can weep, and reduce the burden from my heart,” she says. “But look at their father, he thinks that men don’t cry, but he is eating himself within.”
Ali Ahmed Rind, in Pakistan, contributed to this story.