MAXWELL:  Enter here, and abandon basic rights

9/28/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“Orwellian” best describes the nightmarish quality of two immigration cases being litigated in the Tampa Bay area.

Imagine being in your home having breakfast with your family, when U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities charge in, handcuff you in front of your wife and children and drag you off to an unspecified location _ all without charging you with a crime.

Now stop imagining. This event occurred in Tampa on the morning of May 19. The victim, Palestinian refugee Mazen Al-Najjar, a 40-year-old American-educated engineer who taught Arabic part time at the University of South Florida, has been in an INS holding facility at the Manatee County Jail since he was grabbed.

Although he has not been charged with a crime, Al-Najjar has been denied bail based on “secret evidence” that supposedly connects him with Palestine Islamic Jihad, a notorious terrorist organization in the Middle East.

His troubles began in 1995 after newspaper articles suggested that the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), a USF think tank that he managed, was a fund-raising front for terrorists and that Al-Najjar was an Islamic Jihad shill.

Matters worsened. On Oct. 26, 1995, the head of Islamic Jihad was shot to death on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Two days later, another Tampa Muslim, Ramadan Shallah, who had been an instructor at USF and a member of WISE, assumed leadership of Islamic Jihad.

For area anti-Muslim forces, Shallah’s new job confirmed suspicions that WISE was dangerous and prompted USF President Betty Castor to officially investigate the group. Authorities expected to uncover an active terrorist cell with a money trail leading from Tampa to Gaza City.

After the investigation, Castor said: “Was there illegal activity, subversive activity, terrorist activity? We don’t have any evidence of that.”

Nevertheless, Al-Najjar remains in jail, not formally charged. He is being held under a provision of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which Congress passed in response to the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings. Civil rights and immigration lawyers contend that INS has had, and has used, the power for more than 20 years to use classified evidence to imprison, to grant asylum and to deny residency.

Intended to protect American citizens, the anti-terrorism bill undermines some of the nation’s most cherished constitutional protections.

The merits of the case aside, the anti-terrorism law lets the government use informant testimony or other forms of secret evidence to imprison and deport legal immigrants suspected of terrorism without letting the suspects cross-examine their excusers.

Do aliens have the same rights of due process that thieves, drug traffickers and murderers enjoy?

Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. But tell that fact to yet another Muslim, Sami Amin Al-Arian, also a former USF professor and founder of WISE. Al-Arian has been suspended from teaching computer engineering at USF, and his home and office have been searched because of his connections to WISE.

He has been denied citizenship based on secret evidence. To see this evidence, Al-Arian mailed a Freedom of Information request to INS in May 1995. Two months later, the Egyptian-born professor received part of his dossier but was told that the FBI was withholding certain “classified” pages as secret evidence. Al-Arian persisted and in late August received 18 photocopied pages cleared by the FBI.

The secret evidence that had kept him from becoming a U.S. citizen turns out to be nothing more than newspaper articles and a column from the Tampa Tribune.

Al-Arian is dismayed. “It’s scary to see the most powerful government on earth rely on biased and malicious reports,” he said during a telephone interview. “If the source of classified material is newspaper reports which derailed my citizenship application, God only knows how Israeli and/or Zionist reports would be treated by these agencies. I think every citizen should be concerned about the abuse of power by the government. It may be tolerated by the majority when used against the minority, but, for sure, it would never end there.”

Unlike Al-Arian, Al-Najjar has not seen the secret evidence against him.

If the INS has incriminating evidence, he has a constitutional right to see it. Article 6 of the Bill of Rights states: “In criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and the cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for defense.”

All freedom-loving Americans should be outraged that a legal immigrant has been denied these most basic of rights.

But the lives of immigrants, such as Al-Najjar and Al-Arian, may become more Kafkaesque before they improve. Soon the House Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the Immigration Technical Corrections Act of 1997. This noxious proposal would enable the secretary of state to make mere membership in a group designated a “foreign terrorist organization” grounds for deportation.

And, of course, the evidence, deemed “classified,” would be kept secret in the name of national security.

Obviously, U.S. citizens should expect the government to take all reasonable care to protect them from terrorism, both foreign and domestic. But that same government also has a duty to protect the constitutional rights of everyone _ even those in the minority whose ideas and religions the majority rejects.