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Pair eager to leave their legal limbo

A judge's ruling could soon bring an end to the 20-year ordeal of two Palestinians, members of `the L.A. 8.'

February 09, 2007|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

In a manufactured house in the pine forests of central Oregon, where the glassy Deschutes River winds through the landscape like a musical theme, Michel Shehadeh counts the days. Twenty more, and, assuming the United States government takes no further action, his 20-year ordeal will end.

Seven hundred miles to the south, amid tract houses and dry pasture lands near Chino Hills, Khader Hamide counts, too.

Last week, a federal immigration judge threw out the government's deportation case against the two Palestinians, calling it "an embarrassment to the rule of law."

But Shehadeh, a freelance writer and erstwhile restaurateur, and Hamide, a coffee merchant and day trader, know better than to assume the best. Although they have won every legal proceeding in the government's extraordinary two-decade long campaign to expel them, law enforcement officials have until now always found a way to keep them in legal limbo.

Government lawyers have until March 1 to take Judge Bruce J. Einhorn's decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals. A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says a decision on whether to appeal is still pending.

Shehadeh and Hamide, both longtime legal residents of the United States, are part of a group known as "the L.A. 8," after the government began, in January 1987, to try to deport them for supporting the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical organization that was involved in airline hijackings and car bombings in the Middle East but that also has run social service agencies in Palestinian territories.

The eight defendants have maintained that they engaged only in constitutionally protected activity, such as distributing leaflets, participating in demonstrations and taking part in fundraisers, and that the case is an attempt to stifle immigrant voices of dissent from U.S. policy. None were ever charged with a crime.

During the legal proceedings, Shehadeh and Hamide have led ordinary suburban lives, running their businesses and ferrying their children to and from school events.

Shehadeh's English-born wife became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Hamide's Kenyan-born spouse acquired permanent-resident standing. Their five children were born in the United States and are citizens, a status their fathers, after more than 30 years in the country, covet for themselves.

Applying for citizenship, says Hamide, "would be the first thing I'd do once this case is over. I want to be able to vote. I want to have a passport of a country. Now, I'm a citizen of no country. I've been here 35 years. I have roots here, but somebody has tried to dry them out and cut them off."

Shehadeh also intends to pursue naturalization. "Of course. That's why I stayed here," he says. "I'm going to die here. I'm going to be buried in the United States."

Shehadeh is a fashionably goateed and shorn man of 50, who, though easily stirred to impassioned political discourse, displays a lighthearted nature. He was raised Catholic in the Christian West Bank town of Birzeit, served as an altar boy and for a time considered becoming a priest.

His mother was a hairdresser, and his stepfather a U.S.-educated engineer and naturalized American citizen. Shehadeh came to the U.S. to attend college, not on a student visa but as an immigrant.

"I came here for a way of life," he says. "I'd lived all my life under Israeli occupation, and I wanted to be free. I knew all about America. I was three-fourths Westernized before I set foot in America."

Shehadeh studied at Cal State Long Beach, where he acquired a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in public policy administration. From the beginning he was active in politics, especially in the promotion of Palestinian statehood.

It was for the latter that he ran afoul of American authorities, particularly for taking part in fundraising for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, to which both he and Hamide deny ever having belonged.

"I don't know if you can understand the transformation of a kid who lived his whole life where he couldn't open his mouth, and who then comes to an American campus where freedom of speech is sacred," he says. "I mean, you couldn't shut me up. I had opinions about everything and spoke in defense of gays, about South Africa, against the conflicts in Central America. They told us that the best citizens were those who are engaged, and we ended up being punished for trying to be like good citizens.

"But the harder the government pushed us, the more I believed in the principles of the Constitution. The judicial branch, after all, was fighting the executive branch in our case. It made me see the whole principle of checks and balances in real life."

During his legal proceedings, Shehadeh pursued his studies, served for six years as West Coast director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and owned an Italian restaurant in Anaheim.

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