Terror on the Inner Border
Or consider the story of Iraqi refugee Abdul Ameer Yousef Habeeb. On April 1, 2003, a few weeks after the start of military operations in the Gulf, Habeeb got off the Empire Builder in Havre to buy a soft drink in the station's waiting room. He was en route from Seattle, where he worked in a furniture warehouse, to Chicago and then on to Washington, where he says he'd been promised a job on a start-up Arabic-language newspaper.
Habeeb's brother had been killed by Saddam Hussein's security forces, his father had died in a suspicious car crash and Habeeb himself had been repeatedly tortured for what he understatedly terms "political problems" with the government. He had fled to Syria, been granted refugee status by the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Athens, been issued a letter from the US Embassy in Damascus confirming his refugee status and in July 2002, through the Los Angeles airport, had been admitted to the United States as a refugee. From start to finish, the process had been well documented. Now, traveling within his new country, Habeeb wanted to put the past behind him.
"I see one guy in a uniform," Habeeb recalled almost two years later. "He looked to me for a minute, and that makes me worry. I tried to go back to the train. And when I tried, he followed me and stopped between me and the train. He ask me, 'Where are you from?' I said, 'I'm from Iraq.' He ask me how I get to America and what I'm doing here. I told him I'm a political refugee and the American government brought me here. I show him my documents, and he asks me many, many questions. Another guy in a uniform come and ask me questions. He ask me if I did the registration. I was really scared, and when I asked him what does 'the registration' mean, he said you have to go to office in Seattle to give fingerprints and photo."
The registration the Border Patrol agents were referring to is a "special registration" program enacted post-9/11 that mandates that immigrants from a list of countries, mainly in the Middle East, register on a regular basis with immigration authorities. The program, however, specifically excludes refugees. But Habeeb's papers were confiscated, he was arrested and questioned over several hours by Border Patrol and FBI agents. Habeeb had suddenly become Case No. HVR0304000003 A079 854 029. He claims he was put into a small room with cameras and a microphone, that he was asked whether he had friends from Saudi Arabia and whether he knew anyone who talked about America in a critical way. There was, he says, a small cage in the room, which he feared he would be put into, and on the wall, Habeeb claims, was a photograph of a bearded man tied to a chair with a rag around his eyes. Whether these allegations are true is impossible to confirm, since the Border Patrol refused to comment on the case.
Late that night the Iraqi was transferred to the county jail, where he spent three days being verbally tormented by inmates who sneeringly called him "Saddam."
From northern Montana Habeeb was flown to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Seattle, where he underwent more questioning. Brought before an immigration judge, with no attorney representing him, the refugee was again told--erroneously--that he had broken the law by not registering and that he would be deported.