Five Palestinians described Wednesday what they said has been a nightmare existence for them and their families since their arrests last month by federal agents for allegedly belonging to a Marxist faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"This is actually a nightmare, this is not what America is all about," Michel Ibrahim Shehadeh, 30, a grocery store employee from Long Beach told a news conference. "We have nothing to hide."
Another defendant, Bashar Amer, 24, a student at Chaffey Community College in the San Bernardino County community of Alta Loma, described being stunned when five agents surrounded and handcuffed him while he was taking a chemistry final exam.
"I asked (the agents) if I could finish my final exam and they said 'no,' " he said.
The five defendants, and three other immigrants, were arrested by immigration agents last Jan. 26 and face deportation. All have denied belonging to the PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which has a violent history, or participating in PFLP activities.
INS officials have emphasized repeatedly that they have a strong case, that the eight participated in PLFP activities, which will be presented at their deportation hearing, scheduled for April.
But attorneys for the eight defendants, seven Palestinians and a Kenyan, have charged that the government is fabricating a political case based on non-existent evidence.
"This is old-fashioned Arab-bashing," Mark Rosenbaum, a member of the immigrants' defense team, told reporters. "That's what this case is all about."
The press conference at the Los Angeles headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union was the first organized public appearance of the immigrants since they were freed at a bond hearing Feb. 17. Their attorneys prohibited questions on the government's accusations.
Shehadeh, one of two defendants who has permanent resident status, normally the last step before being granted full citizenship, said his early morning arrest at gunpoint and subsequent national publicity produced problems for his family.
Shehadeh said his 3-year-old son needs special counseling and that his wife, Maxine, 28, was fired from her job at Elliott's Designs Inc. of Rancho Dominguez, near Long Beach, where she had been employed since November in the company's day-care center.
Company officials denied that Maxine Shehadeh, a British subject, had been fired. Julie Jones, vice president of the firm, which makes brass Victorian beds, said Maxine Shehadeh claimed that "her husband was deathly ill . . . and just took off and never came back" the day of her husband's arrest.
Both the defendants and their lawyers complained bitterly that INS officials never read the eight immigrants their constitutional rights when they were arrested.
But INS District Director Ernest Gustafson, asked to respond, said "it's not required" to read constitutional rights to an alien facing deportation where there are no criminal charges, as is the case with the eight immigrants. All were advised of their right to counsel, he added.