Af­ter serv­ing U.S., man with spe­cial visa de­tained

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ABI­GAIL HAUSLOHNER abi­gail.hauslohner@wash­

el­iz­a­beth, n.j. — It has been two months since the flight landed at Ne­wark Lib­erty In­ter­na­tional Airport, de­liv­er­ing Ab­dul to a coun­try that had promised him safety.

But the 25-year-old Afghan, hold­ing a visa that al­lowed him to move to the United States af­ter five years of serv­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment in Afghanistan, has never of­fi­cially set foot on U.S. soil. In­stead, he stepped off the plane into a be­wil­der­ing jour­ney through U.S. im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion, dur­ing which he was stripped of his visa and placed in a hold­ing fa­cil­ity for il­le­gal im­mi­grants with­out ever be­ing told why.

Ad­vo­cates say Ab­dul is the first known per­son to have his Afghan Spe­cial Im­mi­grant Visa (SIV) re­voked upon ar­rival to the United States but is among a few re­cip­i­ents of that visa to face a height­ened level of scru­tiny — and to be held in de­ten­tion — since Pres­i­dent Trump promised to tighten the na­tion’s bor­ders.

Be­cause the spe­cial visas are re­served for those who have risked their lives to help the U.S. war ef­fort in Afghanistan, pro­gram ad­vo­cates say Ab­dul’s de­ten­tion sends a trou­bling mes­sage to oth­ers who might con­sider help­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary at a time when the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is weigh­ing an ex­panded mil­i­tary role in Afghanistan.

“I don’t un­der­stand why I’m be­ing held here as a pris­oner when I served the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment,” Ab­dul said in a re­cent in­ter­view through an in­ter­preter at the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment (ICE) de­ten­tion cen­ter just out­side the airport here.

Af­ter Ab­dul’s trip from Kabul on March 13, U.S. bor­der of­fi­cials de­nied him en­try, kept him in an airport hall­way for nearly two days, ini­tially de­nied him ac­cess to a lawyer and had him sign a doc­u­ment that he couldn’t un­der­stand, he said. The doc­u­ment stated that Ab­dul had been stripped of his visa.

U.S. of­fi­cials have pro­vided no rea­son for deny­ing Ab­dul en­try. A rough tran­script of his in­ter­view, as pre­pared by bor­der of­fi­cials, in­cludes no ques­tions or an­swers per­tain­ing to a na­tional se­cu­rity threat or crim­i­nal­ity, in­stead hint­ing at a mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion about bu­reau­cratic as­pects of his visa.

ICE, which de­nied Ab­dul’s pa­role from its fa­cil­ity last month on the ba­sis of his visa hav­ing been re­voked, told him in a let­ter that the agency is “cur­rently in­ves­ti­gat­ing the ba­sis of that re­vo­ca­tion.”

Ab­dul has a the­ory: “I think that it’s be­cause I’m from a Mus­lim coun­try, and I’m a Mus­lim.”

Ab­dul, who agreed to speak with The Wash­ing­ton Post on con­di­tion that his last name not be used be­cause he fears the Tal­iban could take re­venge on his fam­ily, landed in the United States two days be­fore Trump’s re­vised travel ban on cit­i­zens of six ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries — which did not in­clude Afghanistan — was set to go into ef­fect. Fed­eral judges have since sus­pended the ban.

But civil rights ad­vo­cates say Trump’s po­si­tion sent a mes­sage to U.S. bor­der authorities, who they say have in­creas­ingly sin­gled out Mus­lims for ad­di­tional scru­tiny.

The Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Is­lamic Re­la­tions, a Mus­lim ad­vo­cacy group, says it doc­u­mented a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in com­plaints of ha­rass­ment in­volv­ing U.S. bor­der agents’ treat­ment of Mus­lims dur­ing Trump’s first 100 days in of­fice, ris­ing from 17 dur­ing the same pe­riod last year to 193 this year.

“The vol­ume and in­ten­sity of these stops and en­coun­ters seem to be of a dif­fer­ent type than what we’ve seen pre­vi­ously,” said Johnathan Smith, the le­gal di­rec­tor of Mus­lim Ad­vo­cates, an­other civil rights ad­vo­cacy group, not­ing “height­ened ques­tion­ing based on their per­ceived re­li­gion or na­tional ori­gin,” and re­quests for so­cial me­dia pass­words and elec­tron­ics ac­cess.

Ab­dul’s lawyers — Jason Scott Camilo and Far­rin Anello along with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of New Jersey — and ad­vo­cates from the In­ter­na­tional Refugee As­sis­tance Project say Ab­dul is a ca­su­alty of that pro­fil­ing. And while he ap­pears to be the first SIV-holder to have lost his visa upon ar­rival, sev­eral oth­ers have ex­pe­ri­enced lengthy airport de­ten­tions in the past few months; one fam­ily with small chil­dren was held at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Airport for four days and was nearly de­ported be­fore a judge in­ter­vened.

“What does it say if you served for years, you go through this whole, long process, and then you fi­nally get here and we put you in jail?” said Becca Heller, IRAP’s di­rec­tor.

More than 40,000 Afghans have ben­e­fited from the SIV pro­gram since Congress cre­ated it in 2007. Suc­cess­ful ap­pli­cants for the visas must show that they have worked for the United States for at least two years and that they face “an on­go­ing se­ri­ous threat” in their home coun­try.

“Thou­sands of Afghans have put them­selves, and their fam­i­lies, at risk to help our soldiers and diplo­mats ac­com­plish the U.S. mis­sion and re­turn home safely,” Sen. Jeanne Sha­heen (D-N.H.), a pro­po­nent of the pro­gram, said in a state­ment this month af­ter Congress agreed to in­clude an ad­di­tional 2,500 visas in this year’s bud­get.

But other law­mak­ers who have pushed for stricter im­mi­gra­tion laws have long tried to cur­tail the pro­gram, in­clud­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, ar­gu­ing that the visas are costly and ap­pli­cants de­serve deeper scru­tiny. Rep. Bob Good­latte (R-Va.) said he sup­ports giv­ing “im­mi­gra­tion re­lief ” to Afghans who served the U.S. gov­ern­ment. “Hav­ing said that, there must be rea­son­able lim­its on these pro­grams, in­clud­ing en­sur­ing the proper vet­ting of ap­pli­cants to re­duce any abuses of the sys­tem,” he said.

A way out

Ab­dul was 9 when the United States mil­i­tary ar­rived in Afghanistan. His fam­ily, eth­nic Ta­jiks from a vil­lage out­side Kabul, had al­ready moved in an ef­fort to es­cape the Tal­iban’s vi­o­lence. When Ab­dul was 19, a friend helped him land a job as a waiter in the din­ing hall on a U.S. mil­i­tary base. He was later pro­moted to be­come a cashier at the U.S. Em­bassy.

But in 2014, the Tal­iban warned peo­ple in his vil­lage that harm would come to any­one who worked for the Amer­i­cans. As Ab­dul was re­turn­ing home from work one day, two men pulled up on mo­tor­cy­cles and beat him with a ca­ble in the street. Af­ter a close call with a road­side bomb in 2015, his boss, a former U.S. sol­dier and gov­ern­ment con­trac­tor, pro­vided him with tem­po­rary hous­ing on the U.S. base and helped him ap­ply for a visa.

“It was dan­ger­ous for me to be in Afghanistan, so they were happy for me to be safe,” Ab­dul said of his co-work­ers when he got the visa.

Ab­dul’s ar­rival at Ne­wark quickly turned into an or­deal. On his sec­ond night in de­ten­tion, Ab­dul said two bor­der agents told him that his visa had not been ac­cepted, and they asked him to sign a sworn state­ment ac­knowl­edg­ing that fact. “I didn’t know what it was, but I signed it,” he said.

The in­ter­view tran­script, re­viewed by The Post, gives no in­di­ca­tion of why or when Ab­dul’s visa was re­voked.

Ab­dul’s lawyers have ques­tioned the doc­u­ment’s ac­cu­racy and va­lid­ity, given his lim­ited un­der­stand­ing of English. Authorities, for ex­am­ple noted that Ab­dul speaks Pashto when he ac­tu­ally speaks Dari, and they ap­peared to be­lieve that Ab­dul planned to stay with his former boss and spon­sor, Mar­ion Leon Goins, in Ohio, though a re­set­tle­ment agency had arranged hous­ing for him else­where in the state — a dis­par­ity that could have played a role in the out­come.

“Mr. Goins in­di­cated that he was un­aware of your ar­rival to the United States, why would this be the case if you in­tend to re­side with him?” the of­fi­cer asked, ac­cord­ing to the tran­script.

Goins told The Post that his con­ver­sa­tion with bor­der authorities went very dif­fer­ently.

“They asked me: Did I spon­sor him to come over? And I told him, ‘Yeah,’ ” Goins said. “And they told me that they were go­ing to re­lease him.”

Im­mi­gra­tion authorities sched­uled Ab­dul for re­moval from the United States on a flight the fol­low­ing night. A fed­eral judge, re­spond­ing to an ap­peal from Ab­dul’s lawyers, blocked his de­por­ta­tion. At a court hear­ing Wed­nes­day, Ab­dul’s lawyers sub­mit­ted a mo­tion to ter­mi­nate his case.

The gov­ern­ment has un­til June 7 to re­spond, and Ab­dul’s next court hear­ing is sched­uled for June 14.

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