Feb 20, 2002 / vol 8 no 28
A knock on the door
Racist rumors fuel anti-terrorist dragnet
by Steve Rasmussen / email@example.com
Squeaky's Convenience Store in downtown Black Mountain has a flag in its front window and little flags on its counter; bits of red, white and blue antenna streamers litter the edge of its parking lot. Behind the counter inside sits a crib and some chairs where, for nearly three months, Black Mountain native Rachel Lone and her mom and sister took turns caring for Rachel's two daughters (the infant Sultona and 5-year-old Samantha) while tending to the busy store's unceasing stream of customers.
The girls' father, who bought Squeaky's last October, was in jail. Someone had told the FBI that Mohammed Lone had been involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and on Nov. 1, FBI agent James Russell and Immigration and Naturalization Service agent Deborah Cannady arrested him at the Exxon station he manages in Swannanoa. (Like many Middle Eastern men swept up in the national anti-terrorist dragnet, Lone was detained for questioning without being charged with any crime.)
Rachel Lone says the nasty rumors about her husband, a native of Pakistan, had begun circulating after the terrorist attacks but really took off after he bought the store – thanks, she believes, to a rival business owner who was also interested in buying Squeaky's. "Rumors that he was ripping down American flags and burning them; that he was celebrating at his Exxon station, saying, 'America got what they deserved'; that he had run his mouth to a lot of people and somebody beat him up and put him in the hospital. ... This is a small community, and people believe what they hear."
Rachel maintains that her husband is "more of an American than a lot of American citizens that I know." After 9/11, "The man took $300 out of his own pocket to give away flags to people to let them know he was in full support of America."
Many of Rachel's fellow townspeople were outraged by the arrest. Fern Martin, whose daughters attend the Presbyterian preschool with Samantha, wrote a letter to the Black Mountain News in which she described seeing Mohammed Lone in front of Squeaky's putting up or straightening an American flag. "Another driver in the line of cars honked in apparent approval and Mr. Lone smiled and waved."
Within 24 hours of his arrest, the FBI had cleared Lone of any connection with terrorism. But the INS continued to hold him in the Mecklenburg County Jail in Charlotte – along with many other area residents of Middle Eastern descent – because his visa had expired in 1996.
"We'd been in the process, since January last year, of getting his citizenship anyway," Rachel explains. "I never thought of it being that important – I didn't know that it was, because I'd never dealt with the situation before. Apparently he didn't either, because he hadn't gotten a letter, he hadn't got a phone call, 'Your visa's expired, what are you still doing in the United States?' He worked the same job for six years, paid the same taxes out of his paycheck, lived in basically the same area, had the same phone number – why wasn't he contacted before Sept. 11?"
With the help of Black Mountain resident Monroe Gilmour, the founder of WNC Citizens for an End to Institutional Bigotry, Rachel printed up stacks of fliers asking people to send letters and e-mails on Mohammed's behalf to U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor and Mohammed's attorney, George Miller. Both the Black Mountain News and WLOS TV reported on Lone's case.
By the time Mohammed Lone was transferred to Atlanta in preparation for a Jan. 18 court hearing, more than 100 Black Mountain residents had sent Miller and Taylor letters of support. To everyone's surprise, Lone was released from INS custody several days before the hearing.
And though Mohammed's travails with the immigration bureaucracy are far from over (he and Rachel must still produce a mountain of paperwork to prove to officials that they're legally married), Lone says he bears no grudge against the government for imprisoning him – he's just glad to be free.
"I am very, very happy to be with my kids," Lone declares. As for the terrorists, he simply says, "They need to be taken care of."
Rachel says she's proud of her Black Mountain neighbors for their outpouring of help and support throughout her and Mohammed's ordeal. But after struggling to free her husband from the clutches of uncaring officials and "15 miles of red tape," she admits, "I don't have that much get-up-and-go for the government."
West Asheville resident Rehman Nazir – who worked with Mohammed Lone at the Exxon station before landing a job as a manager at the Grove Park Inn a year-and-a-half ago – was less fortunate. Nazir, who's also from Pakistan, emigrated to America in 1998 from Switzerland, where he and his current roommate (who declined to be identified for this article) both studied hotel management.
For Nazir, the knock on the door came on Nov. 7. He, too, was investigated and cleared by the FBI of any links to terrorism. But because his visitor's visa had expired and he was working here without the proper permit from the Department of Labor, he will probably be deported, says his attorney, George Miller.
Nazir, says his roommate, comes from a respectable "family, brought up good, and now he's ended up in jail for nothing. He never killed a fly in his life. He's so frustrated right now, he's saying he'll tell them 'I want to go back – I'll buy my own ticket!'"
Unlike Lone – with whom he was incarcerated in both Charlotte and Atlanta – Nazir didn't have a broad safety net of American friends, relatives and supporters to advocate his cause. Contrasting the fates of his two clients with more than a touch of exasperation in his voice, Miller remarked: "[People say], 'Let's send this son of a bitch home, what's he doing here?' ... When you don't know who he is, who gives a flip? But when he's your next-door neighbor, it's horrible – 'Poor Rachel, her husband is locked up in jail, the kids haven't seen their dad.' Well, if you don't know him, you don't care."
To God only
Like many Lebanese, Saleh Abou-Saleh is a Catholic. He's been an American citizen for 17 of the 24 years he's lived and raised a family in Black Mountain. Five years ago, when his neighbors on Vance Avenue couldn't get the city to fix a drainage problem, they chose Abou-Saleh to petition the Board of Aldermen on their behalf.
At the beginning of the board's March 11, 1997 meeting, everyone stood to recite the pledge of allegiance. Abou-Saleh stood, too – but he remained silent. And after Abou-Saleh had presented the neighborhood's requests, Mayor Carl Bartlett asked him one question:
"Did you pledge allegiance to the flag?"
"I pledge allegiance to God only," Abou-Saleh replied.
The ensuing "flag flap" landed Abou-Saleh on the front page of the Black Mountain News. Alderman Harry Adams claimed Abou-Saleh had turned his back on the flag at the previous Board of Aldermen meeting. As Abou-Saleh and several supporters pointed out later, however, the flag in the meeting room is in a corner of the room, making it inevitable that many audience members would have their back to it.
Monroe Gilmour, meanwhile, wrote an open letter to the mayor, reminding him that no one can legally be required to salute the flag since the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in 1943 – during another wartime peak of patriotic fervor – in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette.
"If there is a fixed star in our constitutional constellation," the court held, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." Not long after Gilmour's letter was published, the controversy surrounding Abou-Saleh faded away.
Then, in January, a terrified Abou-Saleh knocked on Gilmour's door.
"He was genuinely scared – to the point that he didn't want to meet inside the house; we talked outside," says Gilmour. Abou-Saleh, Gilmour reports, "was afraid [the government] was going to make him leave. I said: 'You're a citizen! No one can make you leave!' He wanted to know if he should deed his house over to his son."
Several days earlier, an FBI agent had knocked on Abou-Saleh's doorstep.
"He told me – I didn't ask him – he told me he came on a tip from one of the citizens in the area here that I had turned my back on the flag of the United States," Abou-Saleh relates. (In fact, it's perfectly legal to turn one's back on the flag – see "It's the law".) He told the agent this was not true. "I respect the people's feelings [about the flag], whether I agree with it or not," he says. The devout Catholic explains that while he believes in keeping his word, he will not pledge or swear, describing himself as a "man of peace" who does not believe in violence of any kind.
The agent, who left a card identifying himself as R. Dion Rankin, questioned Abou-Saleh for two hours, asking personal questions about his schooling, his marital status, even where he went to church. Rankin, says Abou-Saleh, was very polite and understanding and dismissed the accusation as "nothing but ignorance."
When Mountain Xpress described the incident to U.S. Attorney for the Western District Robert Conrad (who was in Asheville on Jan. 30 to speak at an ACLU-sponsored forum on the USA PATRIOT Act), he expressed surprise that FBI agents would even investigate such an allegation.
"That sounds bizarre," the federal prosecutor remarked. (At press time, Xpress had been unable to reach Asheville-area FBI Supervisor Richard Schwein for comment.)
For Abou-Saleh, however, the interrogation drew a chilling parallel to the experience that had driven him to leave his native country two decades before. After attending school in America, Abou-Saleh had returned to Lebanon just as the factional religious warfare that would devastate the Middle Eastern country was beginning to heat up. Despite his warnings, his American girlfriend insisted on joining him in Lebanon, where they soon married.
Shortly after, however, "Some of the factions there, they harassed me, they surrounded my house, and they accused me of being an American and an Israeli spy, because my wife was from [America]. They gave me four hours to live – either I would cooperate or they would eliminate me right there. I told them ... 'I am not a spy for anybody. If you want me right now, take me with you.'"
Instead, the men left, vowing to return in four hours. Abou-Saleh and his wife fled their home, escaped back to America, and settled down in Black Mountain – only to encounter, more than a quarter-century later, "the same thing here. In a more civilized manner, but the same thing," he notes.
"I spent 26 years in Lebanon and 27 years here ... without so much as a traffic violation ... and I'm still a foreigner." Since 9/11, he says, "People changed overnight. People walk by, they don't talk to me anymore."
Still, Abou-Saleh insists, "To be a foreigner in another country is a lot worse than here. ... Don't forget to put down that this is the greatest nation still on the face of the earth."
"The worst of humankind"
If you think having your underwear searched when you walk into an airport is an overreaction to the events of 9/11, just try applying for U.S. citizenship. Never a simple process, the INS paperwork maze has, post-9/11, become a nightmare to negotiate, say both immigrants and their attorneys. And the least error – even a name misspelled by one of the INS's own translators – is grounds for officials to summarily reject an application and subject the applicant to jail and deportation, they report. (Or rather, "removal" – the INS is exiling the "D-word" from its bureaucratic lexicon, according to Miller.)
When Mohammed Lone was detained by the INS, his application for citizenship – filed nearly a year before – was being held up because the New York office that translated his Pakistani birth certificate had misspelled, first, his birthplace (Karachi) and, on the second attempt, his last name ("Lown" instead of "Lone"). Before 9/11, immigration officials might have overlooked this, since the transliteration of most foreign words into English is a notoriously arbitrary process.
Now, however, "They're chasing down every lead," says Miller, who's handling the cases of dozens of foreign nationals. "It doesn't matter if it's a red herring or a rabbit – they're going to chase it down." Just to prove that one is married to an American citizen, as Lone will have to do, requires filling out a blizzard of forms demanding certified answers to everything from where your parents were born to whether you were a member of the Nazi Party between 1943 and 1945.
What's more, notes Miller, immigration law now changes almost daily, reflecting the mood of the country as interpreted by Congress. And since Sept. 11, he adds, "We're very wary of those who want to come to the United States. Our immigration laws reflect that current attitude of being very suspicious and unbending and, some people would say, archaic. Others would say we're not even close to being tough enough."
Another man detained with Lone was Aziz Jiwani, a Muslim from India who came to this country in 1990 seeking political asylum from religious persection. Jiwani now lives in Atlanta with his American-born wife and 1-year-old son, working as a computer-network engineer. In 1999, he says, the INS sent him a letter summoning him to his court hearing – but Jiwani never knew about it, because the letter was sent to the wrong address. In his absence, the court ordered him deported. Last December, when his wife applied for a green card for him, he received a call from the INS claiming he could come pick up the card. But when Jiwani arrived at the courthouse with his wife and baby son, INS agents seized him. Though now out of prison, he is scheduled to be deported back to India in the first week of March.
While in prison in Atlanta, Jiwani sent a letter to Rachel Lone, addressed to the media, describing conditions in the prison and the plight of other detainees.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Ashcroft has mandated a top-to-bottom restructuring of the INS over the next few months, the details of which remain a mystery even to immigration officers, says Miller. In the past, the agency divided its focus between enforcement efforts and providing benefits (green cards, work permits, etc.). Now, however, the agency's resources will be overwhelmingly devoted to enforcement, Ashcroft has announced.
"I wish I could tell you the thousands of people that have come through my office in the last 15 years that have come to the U.S. illegally," says Miller, "not because they're trying to get away with something, not because they're criminals, not because they're sneaking anything – they just want a job. They want a place to educate their children and give them a chance. When they're coming from pure hell and can't feed their families, what would you do?"
Apparently, what the INS plans to do is imprison as felons any deportees who re-enter the country. And, thanks to an increasing trend toward treating noncitizens as people without rights, you may never get out.
According to local ACLU attorney Frank Goldsmith, the PATRIOT Act provides that "if you're detaining someone on an immigration violation who is subject to deportation but the country from which they came doesn't want them back, they can be held indefinitely without being accused or convicted of a crime."
"If you're a foreign national in the United States, even if you have a green card," warns Miller, "it's a scary time."
"The other thing that's really frightening that I don't think American citizens really understand," he continues, "is that since the PATRIOT Act was passed, it's a whole new ball game as far as prosecution and detection and, basically, espionage – even within the United States."
The act allows law-enforcement officials (with permission from a federal judge) to eavesdrop on private, confidential conversations between attorneys and clients suspected of involvement in espionage or "terrorism" – which, ACLU attorneys complain, the law leaves hazily defined. This didn't happen to either Lone or Nazir, says Miller, but many of his other clients are convinced they're being spied on. Miller also points out that the new law applies to American citizens as well as foreign nationals.
"They can listen to you in your home. If they think that you're involved or know somebody that's involved in terrorism and they can get information that would help the security of the U.S., if a judge will sign the order, they can listen to your phone conversation – to this conversation right now."
The government's singling out of people of Middle Eastern descent for its anti-terrorist investigations also troubles Deborah Ross, the ACLU's state director in North Carolina.
"The largest area where the ACLU has done work and given legal advice since Sept. 11 [is] in the area of ethnic profiling and religious profiling," noted Ross at the Jan. 30 forum, "because we have had a series of government activities where people have been targeted either for questioning or for detention or for searches in the airports simply based on their perceived race or religion."
Ross pointed out that, according to AsiaWatch, only 15 to 20 percent of the roughly 3.5 million Arab-Americans are Muslims; 80 percent are Christians.
"A lot of them came here to escape terrorism and religious persecution – they came here because we have freedom of religion. But because they're Arab, a lot of people think they're terrorists. ... Now, that doesn't mean they're [automatically] innocent – there are plenty of Christians who commit terrorist acts, a lot of them against abortion clinics – but they are not al-Qaeda members and Taliban members. By just saying that they're Arabic or that we should detain them and question them, we're not only discriminating against them and making assumptions about their religion, but we're wasting time and energy when we could be going after the real folks that are doing all this."
Asked how many of his clients who were detained after 9/11 are Muslims, Miller replied, "Detained? Not many. How many clients do I have that are Muslim that are worried about it? Dozens. Dozens and dozens."
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