In a tiny San Francisco courtroom packed with reporters, federal immigration attorneys outlined a chilling scenario Aug. 9 in their case against Lodi imam Shabbir Ahmed. Arguing that Ahmed should not be released on bond, they linked him to al-Qaida and suggested that his goal was to set up a terrorist recruiting network in the San Joaquin County farming community.
Six days later, the same attorneys claimed a major victory when the Muslim cleric agreed to be deported to his native Pakistan rather than spend months in jail while he fought for an extension of his visa.
If Ahmed was as dangerous as the government contended, why didn't he face criminal charges? And how could his release be declared a win? The diverging answers to those questions reflect the ambivalence America faces in this post-Sept. 11 world.
Immigration officials say that deportation is an effective tool in their war on terror, neatly removing suspicious foreigners from U.S. soil without requiring a full-scale criminal prosecution.
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Whatever Ahmed and his cohorts may have planned for Lodi, it has been derailed, said Virginia Kice of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known by its acronym: ICE. The agency, an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, prosecuted the cases against Ahmed, 39, and his mentor, Muhammed Adil Khan, another Lodi imam.
"Immigration prosecution is one of the many tools in the counterterrorism toolbox," Kice said. "The goal in each case is to disrupt any potential threat and remove that threat from the community. That was accomplished here.
"We look at the overall circumstances and decide on a course of action. Al Capone wasn't charged with being a gangster, after all, but with income tax evasion. You need to be strategic."
But critics worry that this strategy sidesteps due process, permitting the government to prod immigrants into deportation rather than face long imprisonment as their cases crawl through the system.
This concerns Kevin Johnson, a specialist in immigration law and associate dean at the law school of the University of California, Davis.
"It's very common, post-Sept. 11, to use deportation to remove people - particularly Arabs and other Muslims - when there's no basis for charging them with anything else," Johnson said. "They are convicted of no crime, yet they're held in county jail with criminals.
"In these cases, to call it 'voluntary' deportation is a stretch," Johnson said. "The alternative is indefinite detention until you exhaust your appeals, and that could take years."
Technically, the government detained Ahmed on the grounds his visa had expired. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, according to Johnson, the kind of visa extension Ahmed sought would have been a simple process that involved filing some paperwork.
"I have to believe, if the federal government had a terrorism case against these guys in Lodi, they would have charged them criminally," the law professor said. "Instead, the government sullied their reputations with little supporting evidence."
ICE knows what it is doing, countered Kice, its spokeswoman.
"It's very easy to Monday-morning quarterback," she said. "We will not litigate the case in the media. We believe our strategy is successful. We look at the circumstances and choose the most expedient and efficient strategy. And we're not working alone on these cases. We collaborate with the FBI and the U.S. attorney."
The Lodi case broke in June when FBI agents arrested two Pakistani Americans, ice cream vendor Umer Hayat, 47, and his son Hamid, 22, on charges of lying to the FBI about Hamid's alleged attendance at a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.
Shortly afterward, Ahmed, Adil Khan and Adil Khan's 19-year-old son were taken into custody for visa violations.
At Ahmed's bond hearing Aug. 9, an FBI agent testified that during interrogations the Hayats implicated the two Lodi imams in a plot to recruit young American Muslims for jihad - or holy war - against the U.S. The government attorneys also cited a series of anti-American speeches Ahmed made in Islamabad, Pakistan, in late 2001 - just weeks before he immigrated to Lodi.
Ahmed and Adil Khan vigorously deny the terrorist allegations, according to their lawyer, Saad Ahmad. He noted that several witnesses testified Aug. 9 about the good character and intentions of the imams.
But, as the FBI rolled out its allegations, their lawyer said, it became clear to both men that deportation was their best choice. He denied that this outcome was a victory for the government.
"It's a victory for my client, Shabbir Ahmed," the lawyer said. "It was his decision to leave. By standing up and fighting as long as he could, he showed that he was innocent."
Others besides the Lodi imams have chosen deportation over detention. In January, Orange County imam Wagdy Ghoneim accepted deportation to his native Egypt after his request to be released on bond was denied. He also had been held on a visa violation.
One who chose to fight deportation - and prevailed - is Livermore imam Ahmad Abdalla, another Egyptian.
Abdalla, in the United States on a religious visa, was in the process of getting his green card when a neighbor reported to police and the FBI that "suspicious-looking" people were seen coming and going from his apartment, said his lawyer, Banafsheh Akhlaghi.
Abdalla was arrested in April 2003 for overstaying his visa.
"He was taken from his home, shackled, questioned by the FBI and held in custody almost two weeks," Akhlaghi said. "The whole basis of this was simply: 'He looks suspicious.' He's an imam, he dresses in the garb of a holy man in the Muslim faith. His wife also wore traditional dress."
Eventually, even though his green-card application was pending, Abdalla and his family were placed in removal proceedings. Last October, after 18 months in limbo, Abdalla won the right to stay in this country.
This case and others prompted lawyer Akhlaghi to create a nonprofit group, the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement, committed to civil and human rights for Middle Easterners, South Asians and other Muslims.
Akhlaghi said she is seeing more and more Muslims being taken into custody for relatively minor immigration violations.
"In other ethnic or religious communities, these kind of visa violations result in a slap on the wrist," said the Iranian-born lawyer. "If you're a Muslim, you're facing jail and deportation."
"The Lodi case," she said, "raises the question: Who's next?"
Since Sept. 11, that's a necessary question, contends Kice of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"There are a lot of people who second-guess the decisions that are made," she said. "We're doing everything we can to prevent another 9/11. But we'll never know - we hope - exactly what might have happened if these men had not been deported."
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- The Bee's Dorothy Korber can be reached at (916) 321-1061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.