Immigration Law as Anti-Terrorism Tool
Monday, June 13, 2005
Second of two articles
Soul Khalil woke with a start. Her split-level home in Burke was shuddering, and the oppressive hum of a helicopter filled the room. Then she heard the pounding on the front door. "Police!" the voices yelled. She shook her husband. "Hassan! You hear that banging?" she later recalled saying.
Her husband, in his shorts, stumbled into the hallway. At the end of it was a masked agent, his gun drawn. "Get down!" he yelled, according to the husband's recollection. The Lebanese immigrant dropped onto his stomach, and the officers cuffed his hands behind his back.
The charge: lying on his immigration documents.
Authorities rarely go to such lengths to snare an immigrant accused of fraud. The dawn raid last month was carried out by Homeland Security and FBI agents from a local Joint Terrorism Task Force, working with a SWAT-style team -- dispatched because federal officials had information that Khalil, 36, had had weapons training.
Khalil's arrest is part of a broad anti-terrorism effort being waged with a seemingly innocuous weapon: immigration law. In the past two years, officials have filed immigration charges against more than 500 people who have come under scrutiny in national security investigations, according to previously undisclosed government figures. Some are ultimately found to have no terrorism ties, officials acknowledge.
Whereas terrorism charges can be difficult to prosecute, Homeland Security officials say immigration laws can provide a quick, easy way to detain people who could be planning attacks. Authorities have also used routine charges such as overstaying a visa to deport suspected supporters of terrorist groups.
"It's an incredibly important piece of the terrorism response," said Michael J. Garcia, who heads Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. And although immigration violations might seem humdrum, he said, "They're legitimate charges."
Muslim and civil liberties activists disagree. They argue that authorities are enforcing minor violations by Muslims and Arabs, while ignoring millions of other immigrants who flout the same laws.
They note that many of those charged are not shown to be involved in terrorism, including Khalil, a cellular-telephone technician who was freed by a judge pending his immigration trial and denies any connection to terrorism. Federal officials said they could not discuss any national security aspects of the case because it involves an ongoing investigation.
"The approach is basically to target the Muslim and Arab community with a kind of zero-tolerance immigration policy. No other community in the U.S. is treated to zero-tolerance enforcement," said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and critic of the government's anti-terrorism policies.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, immigration agents were minor players in the world of counterterrorism. That changed during the investigation of the hijackings, when 768 suspects were secretly processed on immigration charges. Most were deported after being cleared of connections to terrorism.