Reporting from Chicago — In Chicago's South Asian community, First World Immigration Services Inc. has operated as a walk-in center for recently arrived immigrants, helping with visas, citizenship applications and other matters, its proprietors say.
But as part of a widening investigation into an alleged international terrorist plot rooted in the city, U.S. authorities are sharpening their sights on the agency in search of possible acts of immigration fraud, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.
Federal prosecutors charge that the company served as a front in a plot to bomb a Danish newspaper. The paper had outraged Muslims in 2005 when it published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.
Prosecutors allege that First World's owner, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, also knew of plans for the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, which killed about 170 people. Randall Samborn, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, said last week that federal authorities were working to determine the immigration status of people who entered the U.S. with the agency's help.
Rana, who also owns a grocery store and a halal meat plant, is in federal custody. He was arrested in October, along with another Chicagoan, David Coleman Headley, an alleged scout in the Denmark and Mumbai plots.
Both men have denied the charges. Federal prosecutors allege that Rana, 48, helped Headley scout the newspaper's offices in Copenhagen and several other potential targets by arranging to secure travel visas for Headley.
Headley, 49, then allegedly posed as an agent of First World seeking to place an ad in the newspaper. According to court filings, Rana also conspired to bring foreigners to the U.S. under false pretenses.
In e-mail exchanges, Rana advised an alleged member of the militant Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba about loopholes to get individuals into the U.S., court filings say. The group is believed to have carried out the Mumbai attacks.
"Whenever you find easy way to come to U.S., immediately think there is a catch to it," Rana allegedly wrote in one e-mail, warning against using student visas. In another message, Rana allegedly suggested that somebody be brought in under a false occupation.
Prosecutors say that in another exchange, Rana suggested that a typewriter be used for an application that would include a false employer letter from 1983, noting that laser printers did not exist then.
Rana's lawyers have denied all of the charges, and characterize the Canadian citizen as an upstanding businessman.
Since the federal investigation began, Rana's businesses have been effectively destroyed, his lawyers said. Last week, the scene inside First World was quiet as a worker advised a client over the phone.
"We do all forms of American immigration," said Rana's business partner, lawyer Raymond Sanders. He referred all other questions to his attorney, who did not return a phone call.
Others in Chicago's Pakistani community defended Rana, a man they know as a thoughtful former physician.
Friends say First World is popular among Pakistani and Indian immigrants. Rana "is a very kind-hearted person," said Raja Muhammad Yaqub.
Yaqub, who knows Rana through their mosque, said that Rana had helped fund a health clinic that serves uninsured patients and had assisted non-Muslims as well as Muslims at his immigration agency.
"Mostly, those people who are poor, they come to him," Yaqub said. "If he was any kind of negative person, how can he help those who aren't part of his community?"