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RIGHTS AND THE NEW REALITY

Adrift in a U.S. Gulag

March 28, 2004

Ahmed Badr left behind many friends at Cal State L.A. when he graduated four years ago with a master's degree in exercise therapy. The lanky, 6-foot-tall Egyptian, a basketball nut with a ready joke, did so well in his course work that the faculty gave him its certificate for outstanding achievement.

Seven months ago, federal agents abruptly arrested Badr on an outstanding deportation order. He has been in prison ever since, stuck in a Kafkaesque limbo -- neither deported nor allowed to challenge his deportation, another victim of Homeland Security officials who too often treat an immigrant as an enemy combatant.

Federal immigration officials have long had powers to apprehend and indefinitely detain aliens, but before the 9/11 attacks and passage of the Patriot Act, doing so wasn't a priority. Stepped-up enforcement was supposed to make this nation safer. But the government's treatment of Ahmed Badr is an example of how one man's life can be destroyed and of a threat that might extend to all Americans.

Here is what friends and his attorney say is Badr's story: Now 36, he entered the United States in 1991 on a valid visa. When his visa expired, Badr held a valid work permit; he applied for permanent asylum in the United States. In his petition, Badr argued that in the late 1980s, while a university student in Cairo, he worked for the U.S. Embassy there. For reasons not entirely clear, he was twice arrested, blindfolded and interrogated by Egyptian soldiers.

After graduating at the University of Cairo, Badr came to the U.S. and went to Cal State L.A. He didn't want to return to Egypt, but immigration officials denied his petition for permanent asylum. Midway through his master's course work, Badr learned he had colorectal cancer. He underwent surgery,and radiation.

In late 1995, during one of a dozen hospitalizations, federal agents mailed Badr an order to appear before an immigration judge to explain why he shouldn't be deported. Badr said he missed the hearing because he didn't get the notice. It went to an old address even though he insists he reported each address change to authorities, as required. In 1997, the hearing judge ordered him deported in absentia.

After his graduation in 2000, Badr worked with a cardiologist here, and last summer he moved to Portland, Maine, so he could study at the University of New England to become a physician's assistant. In August, five Homeland Security agents arrested Badr at his apartment there. They handcuffed him and seized his passport, his U.S. identification cards and money.

Since then, he has been shuttled through four facilities and now sits in a Massachusetts jail. In letters to friends here, Badr has written that jail officials have denied his requests for medication he needs to treat hypertension and the effects of his cancer. (Federal officials say Badr has refused to provide them with the required medical information.) He has had no opportunity to challenge his incarceration and little opportunity to meet with his attorneys and sees no prospect of release.

Badr is hardly alone. Yok Meng Chew was almost deported to Malaysia because of a colossal mistake. Chew owns a Brooklyn construction business and has a green card and three American children. He was held in prison for nearly five months before he was able to prove that he never received notice of a hearing on his decade-old asylum petition.

Federal agents recently freed Obain Attouoman, a popular math teacher at a Boston high school, after he spent months behind bars for missing an immigration hearing. Attouoman claimed he misread the handwritten date on the notice.

Badr, Chew and Attouoman are among 400,000 immigrants the Department of Homeland Security believes have ignored pending deportation orders. Federal agents began aggressively pursuing such individuals last summer and now estimate that 9,000 of them have been apprehended. Many, like Badr, had no idea an order hung over them. That's because, according to a 2002 Justice Department study, the data backlog was so great at the old Immigration and Naturalization Service that the agency's files were full of wrong addresses and other errors.

No one has the right to stay in this country if he or she is here illegally or threatens this nation's security. Badr's current lawyers concede that his visa had expired but insist that he has a compelling claim for asylum that was wrongly denied because he got poor advice from a previous lawyer. Moreover, he missed his chance to challenge that denial because he never got the hearing notice. Badr's lawyers have asked the 9th Circuit Court to reopen his asylum petition; that panel should swiftly do that.

More important, the gulag-style treatment that Badr and thousands of other immigrants in prisons around the country continue to experience dishonor this nation's historical commitment to due process of law. At a minimum, these indefinite incarcerations are a grotesque waste of taxpayer funds. More urgently, however, they are an intolerable violation of human rights.

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