When Palestinian Abdelhaleem Ashqar asked U.S. immigration officials here to reschedule a visit to their office earlier this month, noting he was recovering from knee surgery and that it was a Muslim holiday, his request was turned down.
But “we understand that it is the last day of Ramadan,” an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official at the agency’s headquarters in Fairfax emailed Ashqar’s lawyer, Patrick Taurel. Ashqar would “be in and out quickly,” the agent said, and ICE merely needed additional paperwork related to postponement of his 16-year-old deportation order, which was under appeal.
When his worried family called Taurel that morning to say that Ashqar, 60, had been handcuffed at the ICE office, another senior officer told the lawyer by telephone that restraints were standard protocol to take him to a “secure” part of the facility to complete their business, and that Ashqar would be back at his Northern Virginia home in no time.
Even as more assurances were made over the next few hours, however, Ashqar was long gone. Just moments after being led away from his wife and son, he had been hustled out a separate door and driven by ICE agents, with a police escort, to Manassas Regional Airport. Shackled and in pain, by his own later account, he was helped up the stairs of a small executive jet that immediately took off for Israel and landed some 11 hours later in Tel Aviv.
Ashqar is far from the only immigrant to say he or she was deceived by U.S. agents and taken into custody during a previously scheduled ICE “check-in” or court appointment. Reports of such surprise arrests have increased under President Trump, with ICE under pressure to demonstrate increasing numbers of deportations.
But his story is unusual in several ways. Among them are the nexus between Ashqar’s case and the tumultuous politics of the Middle East; a years-old charge related to involvement with a terrorist organization, of which he was acquitted; and the apparent eagerness of ICE to spare no expense to be rid of him, more than 20 years after he was first found to have overstayed a student visa issued in the 1980s.
Even more rare — and adding to the expense — ICE brought him back from Israel, although it immediately sent him to a detention facility.
But on Friday, after 10 days of frantic legal appeals and media reports here and in Israel, the agency agreed to conditionally release him while legal arguments against his removal are heard.
The first step toward that atypical outcome came on June 4, the day of Ashqar’s deportation. After a late-night conference call to hear an appeal by Ashqar’s attorneys, Judge T.S. Ellis III, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, concluded he had no jurisdiction over ICE’s ability to carry out removal orders. But Ellis prohibited ICE from turning Ashqar over to “any entity or person associated with the Israeli government.”
ICE agents accompanying Ashqar learned of the ruling as they landed in Tel Aviv on the morning of June 5, Israeli time. For the next 28 hours, they and their only passenger sat in the plane, parked on the airport tarmac, as they conferred with Washington, watched movies and contemplated their options.
ICE officers, said agency spokeswoman Justine M. Whelan, “ensured complete compliance with the judge’s orders throughout the removal,” and on June 6, they headed back to Manassas without ever setting foot in Israel.
Ashqar, still shackled, was taken that night to the Caroline Detention Facility in Bowling Green, Va., while his lawyers argued he should not be deported at all — and certainly not to Israel, where he said he feared detention and torture.
Although Ashqar’s deportation order rests only on a visa overstay, a senior Trump administration official, familiar with the case but not authorized to speak about it publicly, said concerns remained about possible ties to Hamas, the Gaza group that both Israel and the United States have designated a terrorist entity. The official did not specify the concerns. Ashqar himself has denied any Hamas involvement.
More generally, the official said that the administration wants to send a message that no one can “game the system” by using endless legal appeals to forestall deportation.
Despite Ashqar’s stated fear of Israel — where he says security agents detained and brutalized him as a youth for participating in protests — Israeli officials said there are no charges there against him and that they have no interest even in interrogating him. According to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of a desire to steer clear of involvement in what they see as an internal U.S. controversy, Israel was only doing a favor for Washington when it agreed in August to a U.S. request to allow him to pass through the country on his way to the West Bank. Ashqar believes that he would also be in danger on the West Bank, whose officials he has publicly criticized.
One of the problems of deporting a man like Ashqar is that he, like many Palestinians, is stateless. When he was born on the West Bank, it was part of Jordan. Israel has occupied it since the 1967 war and Jordan, in 1988, relinquished administrative control over its citizens — including issuing them passports.
Ashqar initially came to the United States in 1989 on a Fulbright scholarship, and stayed after it expired. In 1998, he was briefly jailed for civil contempt, after refusing to testify to a federal grand jury in New York seeking evidence against fellow Palestinians.
In 2003, after his petition for asylum was denied, an immigration judge ordered his removal. Ashqar agreed to go to Jordan, which had accepted his entry despite refusing to renew his passport. He expected to quickly move on to a new teaching job at a university in the United Arab Emirates. When he waived his right to a hearing and agreed to depart this country voluntarily, the judge allowed him 60 days to wind up his affairs.
But just days after that ruling, he was handed a new grand jury subpoena — this one in the Southern District of Illinois, where prominent Palestinians were being investigated for providing support to charities allegedly linked to terrorist organizations, including Hamas.
Again, Ashqar refused to testify. “They did not simply ask me about Hamas,” he said in a sworn statement last week. “They asked me about many people who were involved in the Palestinian cause,” and he believed Israel would use his statements “to persecute and torture me” and “would be used against my friends and relatives.” He said he believed “They did not simply ask me about Hamas,” he said. “They asked me about many people who were involved in the Palestinian cause . . . including a number of imams” and “many pro-Palestinian organizations. I stated that I believed that answering these questions would violate my religious, political, and personal beliefs; that the Israeli government would use my statements to persecute and torture me; and that my answers would be used against my friends and relatives.”
He was charged with criminal contempt, to which an obstruction charge was later added, and eventually with “racketeering,” in conspiracy with the person who had already been charged in the case.
In a telephone interview from jail, Ashqar said that evidence used against him dated from the early 1990s, and concerned the transfer of money to a Gaza university.
He remained under house arrest until his 2006 trial, which included testimony by Israeli security agents in a closed courtroom. In February 2007, both defendants were acquitted of the racketeering charge. But Ashqar was convicted of contempt and obstruction for his refusal to testify before the grand jury nearly four years earlier.
He was sentenced to more than 11 years. When he was released from a Virginia prison on June 13, 2017, Ashqar was immediately transferred to ICE custody on the basis of the 2003 removal order. There was no more job on offer in the UAE, and Jordan now refused to accept any Palestinian deportees.
Officials from the government of Jordan, which in 2018 unilaterally terminated its agreement to accept any Palestinian deportees from the United States, according to ICE, did not respond to requests for comment.
After 18 months, ICE conditionally released Ashqar in December while he and the U.S. government tried to find a home for him and his family in another country.
On the morning of his June 4 ICE appointment, Ashqar, his wife and son drove to the Fairfax office dressed for a later visit to their mosque to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. It was the first such holiday they had celebrated together in more than a decade, and they took a smiling family selfie in the car.
Nick Miroff contributed to this report.