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Immigration Officials Can’t Get Man Freed

Times Staff Writer

An Iranian-born Anaheim Hills man has been in federal custody for nearly two months despite the efforts of immigration officials who have joined with his lawyer in filing a court motion on his behalf.

Masoud Khoshnevis, 41, a legal immigrant who works as an engineer for a San Diego road construction company, has been held since early February, when he and hundreds of other Iranian immigrants around the country were ordered to register at immigration offices.

Most signed in and went home. But immigration officials detained Khoshnevis because of an unresolved deportation proceeding from 1993 -- a proceeding that he and his lawyer say resulted from a simple mix-up at a border checkpoint years ago.

Officials with the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, formerly known as the INS, would not discuss the case on the record. But David Ross, Khoshnevis’ attorney, said they have told him they would like to drop the deportation case, despite the rulings of a San Diego immigration judge who has kept him behind bars.

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“The deportation-section authorities specifically told me that the judge was wrong -- that his order was completely inappropriate,” Ross said. “The deputy [immigration] counsel is very sympathetic to my client’s case.”

The ordeal has confused and embittered Khoshnevis and his family, who came to the United States seeking a better life than they faced under fundamentalist Islamic rule in Iran. Khoshnevis said he was reared in a deeply religious Muslim family but drifted from the faith more than 20 years ago.

Khoshnevis said he paid thousands of dollars to smugglers in the 1980s to get himself and his family out of Iran, eventually reaching Germany, where they settled as refugees and ran a grocery business.

Khoshnevis was vacationing in the United States on a visitor’s visa in April 1993 when he crossed the Canadian border in Washington state for a day trip. When he re-entered the country, he was arrested.

Ross said that arrest was a mistake -- that a Border Patrol agent wrongly told Khoshnevis he should have obtained a fresh visa in Canada to reenter the United States.

After he was fingerprinted and told authorities where he was staying in the United States, Khoshnevis was released. Two weeks later, Khoshnevis returned to Germany. Records show that after Khoshnevis left the U.S., the INS opened a deportation case without notifying him.

In July 1993, as that case was getting underway, Khoshnevis sought to return to the United States and was inexplicably granted another visitor’s visa. Still unaware of the deportation proceedings, he gained permission to live in the United States and eventually brought his wife, Pouran Ayoubi, and their young son to join him.

In September 1993, immigration Judge Robert J. Barrett ruled in San Diego that Khoshnevis should be deported. Though immigration officials said they notified him of the deportation order, Khoshnevis -- who had moved several times by this point -- said he never received the letter.

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Khoshnevis, who has a college degree in economics from Iran, worked illegally as a tow truck driver, gas station attendant and pizza delivery man for four years before he and his wife were granted work permits -- one step below a green card -- in 1997. He worked for construction companies in various capacities before getting his job this year as a geotechnical engineer.

Khoshnevis points out his work permit carries the same registration number he was given in April 1993.

“It’s the same number I have now,” Khoshnevis said. “I didn’t know there was a deportation order against me in 1997. But the INS should’ve known about it. How could they give me a work permit at the same time they were trying to deport me?”

The Khoshnevis family lived in Los Angeles and San Diego before buying a home in Anaheim Hills. Khoshnevis said he learned of the deportation order in early 2000, when he went to the INS office in Los Angeles for an interview to obtain a green card.

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“All of a sudden, four guys came through the door and arrested me,” Khoshnevis said. “I was very shocked.”

Ross, who began representing Khoshnevis after his arrest, said Khoshnevis was released after proving to authorities that he was in Germany when the proceedings against him began in 1993, and that the deportation order was invalid.

“The problem was that INS did not know how to resolve the problem,” said Ross. “Three years later, they’re still looking for a solution.”

Ross said that when the registration order went out last year for Iranian men who were not naturalized citizens or green-card holders, he anticipated Khoshnevis would be arrested. In December, Ross filed a legal motion with Barrett, the San Diego judge, to reopen the case. He hoped to have the deportation order revoked so that his client would not be held for violating it.

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Barrett rejected the motion in a five-page opinion issued Jan. 17, ruling that Khoshnevis had to file his appeal within 180 days of the deportation order -- something Khoshnevis says he couldn’t do be because he never received the deportation notification. The judge rejected that argument, saying he believed Khoshnevis had been properly notified. Ross has appealed.While immigration officials declined to speak about the case for publication, court records show they reversed their position on the deportation and took an unusual step on Khoshnevis’ behalf: Alan Rabinowitz, an attorney for the immigration agency, joined Ross in filing a motion -- separate from the appeal -- asking Barrett to reopen the case.

Barrett, citing the ongoing appeal, refused to hear the new motion, Ross said. A clerk in San Diego immigration court said Barrett would not comment on the case.

Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said Barrett’s refusal to reopen Khoshnevis’ case is not surprising, given the government’s concern with terrorism.

“It’s a culture of ‘no’ within the agency and in immigration court,” Butterfield said. “You’re not going to get in trouble if you say no. Nobody in the government is going to question your decision.”

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After Barrett’s decision, immigration officials ordered Khoshnevis released on $10,000 bond. Ayoubi and their son drove to San Diego with $10,000 they had borrowed and waited for more than four hours for Khoshnevis’ release.

“She [the deportation officer] came out and said that because of the war my husband was not going to be released,” Ayoubi said.

So Khoshnevis remains in jail searching for answers as his family tries cope. Working as a technician at an Orange County medical clinic, Ayoubi has had to borrow from friends to pay their mortgage and other bills. Son Amir, 17, took a fast-food restaurant job to help.

“The government doesn’t know what they’re doing to my life,” she said. “We are now in debt up to our neck.”

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The couple tried to keep the news from their 7-year-old daughter. “But she has figured out he’s in jail,” Ayoubi said. “She cries every day. The other night she went to bed with one of her father’s shirts.”

The bitterness is hard to hold in check, she said.

“Bush says the U.S. is fighting in Iraq to free Muslims, but they believe that every Muslim in the U.S. could be a terrorist,” Ayoubi said. “They think my husband is a terrorist. We came to the U.S. to have freedom, but I don’t think we have that.”

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Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report.


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