Confined to the Terminal Island immigration jail for more than three years, the Mirmehdi brothers cannot help wondering whether they are somehow beyond the law.
The federal government considers the four Iranians, outspoken opponents of Iran's Islamic regime, security threats with links to terrorism and wants them deported.
While there's been no shortage of due process in this strange and convoluted case, the two sides remain miles apart on whether justice has been served.
The Mirmehdi brothers came to the United States and obtained government work permits years ago. Later, they ran afoul of immigration authorities, were arrested and faced deportation for lying on political asylum applications about when and how they had entered the country.
Despite their legal problems, they were released on bail in 1999 and went on with their lives, earning a handsome living selling real estate in the San Fernando Valley as they fought the government's slow-moving efforts to deport them.
While their deportation case was under appeal, the federal government arrested them in October 2001 as part of a nationwide crackdown on Middle Easterners known to be in the country illegally following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At the time, the government said it had new evidence alleging the four had terrorist ties.
Legal experts said they did not know of another case where an illegal immigrant arrested in the wake of the 9/11 attacks had spent more time behind bars before being deported.
Mohsen, Mojtaba, Mohammed and Mostafa Mirmehdi have been incarcerated and ordered deported by the Department of Homeland Security under two sections of the Patriot Act on grounds that they were linked to a terrorist organization. The law does not require the government to prove that they had engaged in terrorism, only that such an association exists.
The government continues to hold the four -- and faces a Feb. 20 deadline for releasing them -- even though the Board of Immigration Appeals and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have recently found that government attorneys had failed to prove any link to terrorists.
Whether the Department of Homeland Security will comply with the upcoming deadline and release them on bail or try to offer new evidence in another attempt to tie them to terrorists is unknown, the brothers and their attorney say.
The government's hard line is all the more remarkable because the terrorist group to which the brothers are allegedly tied, the Moujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, is dedicated to the overthrow of Iran's ruling clerics. As such, the MEK enjoys widespread support from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, despite its inclusion on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
"Our point is that we aren't going to allow illegal aliens with ties to terrorist organizations a first shot to take terrorist acts," said William Odencrantz, the top lawyer for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, in Laguna Niguel.
The department's mission is to protect the United States, he said, and "we don't have to let them commit the act before they are subject to detention."
Georgetown University law professor David Cole, an expert on immigration law and on the Patriot Act, said the government's reason for keeping the Mirmehdis locked up "would be a well-founded fear if there's any basis for believing they in fact pose a threat to national security. But in a case where the courts have found exactly the opposite, there doesn't seem to be any foundation for that fear."
Marc Van Der Hout, the Mirmehdis' attorney, said the Bush administration simply tries to "ignore the courts" when they rule in ways it doesn't like. "The Supreme Court said you can't hold someone indefinitely just because he's deportable," Van Der Hout said.
That ruling came less than three months before the Sept. 11 attacks. In a case called Zadvydas vs. Davis, the high court said the government has six months to remove an immigrant once he is ordered deported. If deportation is unlikely, the immigrant has to be released unless the government produces new evidence, such as ties to terrorism, to continue keeping him in custody.
In the Mirmehdis' case, the six-month clock began ticking in August, when the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that the government had failed to prove the brothers had engaged in terrorist activity. The appeals board also upheld decisions by two immigration judges who ruled that, while they did not qualify for political asylum because of lies they told on their applications, the government cannot deport them to Iran because they would be persecuted or tortured.
The government's only alternative to bail would be finding another country to take the brothers, but that seems unlikely, immigration experts said, because of the allegations they are linked to terrorists.