By Michael E. Miller
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After ICE agents threatened Farahi with terrorism charges, he told Holliday he would voluntarily leave the country within 30 days. Although his Iranian passport was expired — a bureaucratic problem that should have given him more time to consider the government's threat — Holliday granted the order of voluntary departure.
The agents let Farahi go free after he promised to leave the country. But Farahi decided instead to appeal the government's action, which is called an "order of voluntary departure."
Farahi believes that the government's claim that it would prosecute him as a terrorist was a bluff — nothing more than leverage to coerce him into becoming an informant. To this day, the government has not shared with Farahi or his attorney any information about this professed evidence, and he has not been charged with a crime.
"If they have something on Foad, they should make it public. They haven't done that," says Sunshine, the Barry University theology professor. "They are intimidating and bullying, and I resent that type of behavior being paid for by my tax dollars."
Farahi's assertion that the government is trying to coerce him to become an informant cannot be verified independently because the FBI won't comment on his case, says Miami FBI Special Agent Judy Orihuela. "It is a matter of policy that we do not confirm or deny who we have asked to be a source," Orihuela says.
But similar claims from other would-be informants seem to support Farahi's assertion. In November 2005, for example, immigration officials questioned Yassine Ouassif, a 24-year-old Moroccan with a green card, as he crossed into New York from Canada. The officials confiscated his green card and instructed him to meet an FBI agent in Oakland, California. The bureau's offer: Become an informant or be deported. Ouassif refused to spy and won his deportation case with the help of the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement, a nonprofit that advocates for civil rights on behalf of Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia.
The government employed a similarly tough tactic against Tarek Mehanna, a 26-year-old U.S. citizen living in Sudbury, Massachusetts. After FBI agents failed to persuade Mehanna to spy, the government charged him with making a false statement. Prosecutors allege Mehanna told FBI agents a suspect was in Egypt when he knew that person was in Somalia. Mehanna is awaiting trial, and his attorney has alleged the prosecution is a form of revenge for Mehanna's unwillingness to be an informant.
Among more recent cases is that of Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Afghanistan. Charged with making a false statement to obtain citizenship, he alleged in a February detention hearing in Orange County, California, that he was arrested and indicted for refusing to be an informant.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) suspects there are hundreds of similar cases in which the government has used deportation or criminal charges to force cooperation from informants. Most of these cases will never be made public. What's more, the FBI is now working under guidelines, approved in December 2008 by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey, that allow agents to consider religion and ethnic background when launching undercover investigations. Today, many Muslims in the United States simply assume informants are working inside mosques.
"This is becoming increasingly common," says Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR's national communications director. "Law enforcement authorities seek to use some vulnerability of the individual, whether it be business, immigration, or personal, to try to gain some sort of informant status.
"The issue is law enforcement's basic understanding of the community. Is it one that law enforcement needs to have blanket suspicion toward, or is it... well integrated into our multifaith nation and wants to preserve public safety as well as civil liberties?"
Ira Kurzban's law office in Miami is a mile from the alfresco restaurants of Coconut Grove. On a hot day in late August, Kurzban wears a white guayabera and shows no concern for the disheveled gray hairs on the sides of his balding head.
He leans forward at his desk, having been asked a question about Farahi. "He's an imam in his mosque," Kurzban says as he throws his hands in the air in a sort of protest. "He's basically, you know, the rabbi."
Kurzban has become a well-known advocate for immigrants' rights, having argued more immigration-related cases before the U.S. Supreme Court than any of his peers. He is also on the board of directors of Immigrants' List, the first political action committee in Washington, D.C., established to support candidates who endorse immigration reform.
Farahi, desperate not to leave the country but frightened after government agents threatened to charge him as a terrorist, hired Kurzban to take his case on appeal.
In November 2007, Kurzban asked the Board of Immigration Appeals to throw out Farahi's voluntary departure order and reopen his political asylum case, arguing that the imam was illegally intimidated. The board denied the request, so Kurzban petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Farahi's order of voluntary departure has been stayed as the appeals court considers his request.
For now, the legal battle leaves Farahi in a kind of no land's man. He no longer has an official immigration status in the United States, and in asking for political asylum, he has rejected his Iranian citizenship. As he was in Kuwait, Farahi is home in a land that could expel him at any time.