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American Muslim

The San Francisco Bay Guardian
August 20, 2003

Another local Muslim gets the Ashcroft treatment

By A.C. Thompson

BY NOW IT'S a familiar post-Sept. 11 narrative: A Middle Eastern immigrant is swept up by federal agents and whisked off to a jail cell on a dubious pretext. Still, Sheikh Ahmad Abadalla's story is chilling.

Thanks to a minor snafu in his immigration paperwork, Abadalla, a native of Egypt now residing in Livermore, was arrested and jailed in April, marched around in handcuffs and ankle chains, repeatedly interrogated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation – and now he and his wife and child are facing a forced exit from the country.

"They are targeting Muslims and Arabs for deportation," said Samina Faheem, executive director of activist group American Muslim Voice and member of an interfaith community network called We R One. "These are minor visa violations that would have been overlooked before 9-11. It's a way to do ethnic cleansing."

An imam at a mosque in the Livermore area, Abadalla moved to northern California from Egypt in 1999 with his wife, Faten Salha, on a temporary "religious worker" visa, which allows missionaries and religious leaders from abroad to work in the United States for up to four years at a stretch.

Hoping to secure an extension on the visa, Abadalla hired an attorney to help him navigate the labyrinthine immigration bureaucracy. The lawyer apparently screwed up, filling out the wrong form and mailing it to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (which has since been chopped into several chunks, all of which are overseen by the Department of Homeland Security). When the agency tried to contact Abadalla about the problem, it screwed up as well, sending letters to the wrong address.

Fast-forward to April 2003. With Abadalla's visa expired, the feds descended on the Livermore apartment he shared with his wife and two-year-old daughter. According to Banafsheh Akhlaghi, a San Francisco attorney who recently took over the case, the imam was carted off to the Yuba County Jail (where the feds lease cells for immigrant prisoners), held for three to four days, and repeatedly questioned by FBI agents. He was hauled into immigration court – a civil, not criminal venue – wearing an orange jumpsuit and bound by chains and handcuffs.

Abadalla's supporters insist he has no connection to terrorist activity, and the federal government hasn't filed any allegations of criminal behavior.

"All they were trying to do was come to this country, and they're being treated like criminals," said Akhlaghi, who is waging a courtroom fight to keep Abadalla and his family in the United States. Among local Muslims, the lawyer told us, the imam "is a very, very well-loved man. He's highly respected. He's definitely a man of God."

The lawyer argued the case last week before immigration judge Michael Yamaguchi, a former U.S. attorney who made a name for himself by suing medical marijuana clubs in the late 1990s. "We are asking [the federal government] not to go forward with the deportation," Akhlaghi said, adding that Abadallah is being booted "on a minor technicality, because somebody filled out the wrong piece of paper."

Yamaguchi has yet to rule on the matter, and further court appearances are scheduled. Sharon Rummery, spokesperson for the newly minted Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said federal rules prevented her from commenting directly on Abadalla's case.

As for the agency's general tactics, Rummery told us, "The agency doesn't treat any group differently from any other group. But right now we do have two enforcement priorities, and those priorities are criminal aliens and the war on terrorism." According to Rummery, it's standard procedure for people facing deportation to be brought to court in cuffs and sometimes ankle chains.

Last week civil libertarians with the Blue Triangle Network sent out a mass e-mail encouraging people to deluge immigration officials with polite messages of support for the imam and his family. "They want to stay here and be a part of the community," explained Cynthia Morse, a Blue Triangle activist who's known Abadalla since 2001.

Faheem, the Muslim activist, was a tad pessimistic about the call-in. She said, "I don't know how many Muslims are going to call. They've almost totally silenced us. The thought is, 'If we stay quiet, if we don't raise our voices, they won't target us.' But that's not democracy."