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U.S. kept Australian family from La Habra family reunion

The parents and two teenage children were held for 26 hours at LAX, then sent back to Australia. Customs officials dispute their story, but say they cannot discuss specifics.

January 28, 2009|Dan Weikel

After his family traveled for almost 18 hours from Australia to Los Angeles earlier this month, Fazle Rabbi said the only thing he wanted to do was visit his 84-year-old father, whose health was failing rapidly because of heart disease.

Rabbi, his wife and two sons, all Australian citizens with valid passports, never made it to the family reunion at his sister's home in La Habra, where his father lives. Instead, they were held by U.S. customs officials at Los Angeles International Airport, put under guard at a detention facility and deported almost 26 hours after their arrival.

"They treated us so badly -- like we were terrorists," Rabbi said during a telephone interview from his home in Thornleigh, a suburb of Sydney. "We are good people. We just wanted to see my father. He could die soon. They can check everything with our government."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials dispute Rabbi's story, but they said they cannot discuss specific cases because of federal privacy laws. In general, travelers can be denied entry to the United States for a variety of reasons, such as improper travel documents, providing false information to customs officers, criminal records, links to terrorist groups and prior immigration problems.

In a prepared statement, agency officials said, "Customs and Border Protection strives to treat all travelers in a professional and courteous manner, while enforcing immigration, trade, agriculture, security and other U.S. laws."

According to Rabbi, his family's ordeal began earlier this month when they decided to come to California at the urging of his sister, Dr. Nasima Begum of La Habra. Begum, an infectious disease specialist who works in West Covina, said she notified Rabbi that their father's health had worsened and that he had been hospitalized for a day because of a bad fall just before Christmas.

"Our father's health is so unstable. He needs oxygen 24 hours a day," she said. "He can't travel. The only way he can see his son is for him to come here. The last time they saw each other was more than two years ago."

On Jan. 13, Rabbi, 38, his wife, Rokeya, 36, and their two sons, Rakin, 14, and Raiyan, 8, boarded a Qantas flight in Sydney. About 18 hours later, they arrived at LAX and proceeded to the federal inspection station at Tom Bradley International Terminal. The family never made it out of customs.

During the next 24 hours, Rabbi said, officers repeatedly questioned him and his wife, patted them down and searched their luggage before transporting them and their sons to a detention center in a caged van. Then, he said, they were taken to a hotel with other detainees about 2:30 a.m., where they were placed under guard while they tried to sleep.

A few hours after arriving at the hotel, Rabbi said, they were awakened and taken back to LAX, where the family was eventually put on a return flight to Sydney. All the while, he said, customs officials gave them very little food and water -- just "a few biscuits" -- though they were tired and hungry.

"They asked us a lot of questions: What are your intentions? Where are you going?" Rabbi said. "After several hours, they did not believe us. These people treated us like we were bad people planning to do bad things."

While in the detention center, Rabbi recalled that he became concerned about his youngest son, who was upset and frightened. "He thought we were going to be handcuffed like the other detainees," he said. And, relatives said, a request to set up a short visit with his father in a lobby was refused.

"This is a humanitarian issue. They could have set up a meeting. This is just insane," said Feroze Ahmed, Rabbi's brother-in-law.

At one point, Rabbi said, customs officials mentioned that he was being denied entry because he had been turned down several times for a U.S. visa while his family lived in Bangladesh. The reasons for the denials were not available, but it is not uncommon for the U.S. to deny travel documents to citizens of impoverished countries.

Rabbi contends that his earlier visa problems do not matter because he holds a valid Australian passport and he had obtained U.S. visas before leaving Sydney. His family immigrated to Australia four years ago. He also said his two sons were allowed entry to the United States last summer to visit his sister and her husband.

Though Rabbi claims to have obtained visas, he might not have needed them. Australia participates in the United States visa waiver program, which means its citizens can travel in the U.S. for up to 90 days with only a valid passport.

"I was so shocked," Rabbi said. "As an Australian, you can go to the United States. You don't even need a visa."

During questioning, he said, customs officers became angry and accused him of trying to stay illegally in the U.S., although he had return airline tickets dated Feb. 5 and worth $6,400 in Australian dollars.

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