SACRAMENTO — In the last year, federal Homeland Security officials have begun to use an immigration law granting foreign religious workers temporary visas into the U.S. as a way to prosecute, jail and deport Muslim clerics they say have ties to terrorism.
In one of several recent cases, Shabbir Ahmed -- the 42-year-old Pakistani imam of a Lodi, Calif., mosque charged with overstaying his three-year religious-worker visa -- faces an immigration hearing today in a San Francisco federal court.
The hearing is part of what investigators say is a several-year probe of terrorism links in the San Joaquin Valley agricultural town's large Pakistani American community. Ahmed has not been charged with any terrorist crime.
Tens of thousands of foreigners -- Irish nuns, Tibetan monks, Israeli cantors, Brazilian evangelists and others -- enter the United States each year as temporary religious workers on three- to five-year visas.
Such visits are possible because of a change -- originally pushed by the Roman Catholic and Christian Science churches -- in the 1990 Immigration and Nationality Act. Sections of the act specifically ban terrorism or international fund-raising activity.
Federal officials insist that they are not using the religious-workers provision to single out Muslims but say some people have abused the provision to preach and practice terrorism.
Also charged in the Lodi sweep were another Muslim cleric, Muhammed Adil Khan, 47, and his son Muhammed Hassan Adil, 19, whose court appearances are set for Wednesday and Thursday.
Basim Elkarra, Sacramento Valley director of the national Council on American-Islamic Relations, characterized the Lodi religious leaders as moderate figures involved in extensive interfaith activities with local churches and synagogues.
"The arrests have been a shock to the Lodi community," Elkarra said.
Fremont attorney Saad Ahmad, who represents all three Lodi men charged with religious worker, or R-1, visa violations, accuses the government of using immigration laws to prosecute terrorism allegations for which it has offered no proof.
"There is not a single item of evidence that any of my three clients has ever been involved in, or in anyway associated with, any terrorist activity whatsoever," Ahmad said in a June 13 statement on the case.
At the San Francisco hearing today, he is expected to demand bond for his clients in hopes that it will force the government to produce evidence of terrorism.
Two other men, Lodi ice-cream truck driver Umer Hayat, 47, and his son, Hamid Hayat, 22, both American citizens, are charged in Sacramento federal court with lying to FBI agents about Hamid's alleged participation in a Pakistan terrorist camp.
All five Lodi men are being held without bail in Sacramento or Santa Clara County jails.
According to federal immigration records, there have been 145,000 foreign priest, religious worker and religious dependent admissions to the United States under "workers in religious occupations" provisions since 1992. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Chris Bentley said the number of individuals was somewhat lower, because most of the visas allow for multiple entries.
Over the last three years, the greatest numbers of religious-work admissions have been from Mexico (5,198), India (4,666), Canada (4,357), Britain (3,393) and South Korea (3,962).
Although the government does not keep track of such visas by religion, immigration records show that, in the same three years, more than 1,000 of the R-1 admissions have been for citizens of predominantly Muslim countries, including 270 from Egypt, 173 from Indonesia and 113 from Pakistan.
Enforcement actions involving Muslim religious workers began last fall with the arrest of 62-year-old Muhammad Khalil, imam of a Brooklyn, N.Y., mosque.
He was convicted in federal court of fraudulently sponsoring more than 200 applications for Pakistani religious workers for his Dar Ehya Essunah mosque. Although Khalil was not charged with terrorism, prosecutors in that case alleged in court that he was an "admirer of Osama bin Laden and his jihadist philosophy."
After the conviction, Martin Ficke, special agent in charge for the U.S. immigration bureau in New York, announced: "Today, Khalil's international smuggling pipeline has been shut down, and a potentially serious vulnerability ... has been closed."
In January, Orange County Imam Wagdy Mohammed Ghoneim, a citizen of Egypt, left the United States voluntarily with his wife and seven children rather than face charges that he had overstayed his religious-worker visa.
Although the Anaheim-based Ghoneim was officially charged only with immigration violations, the government alleged that he was active in fundraising that could have helped terrorist organizations. "It is often much easier to make an immigration case than it is to prove terrorism," said Virginia Kice, West Coast public affairs officer for the immigration bureau.