In the last year, federal Homeland Security officials have begun to use an immigration law granting foreign religious workers temporary visas into the U.S. as a way to prosecute, jail and deport Muslim clerics they say have ties to terrorism.
In one of several recent cases, Shabbir Ahmed -- the 42-year-old Pakistani imam of a Lodi, Calif., mosque charged with overstaying his three-year religious-worker visa -- faces an immigration hearing today in a San Francisco federal court.
The hearing is part of what investigators say is a several-year probe of terrorism links in the San Joaquin Valley agricultural town’s large Pakistani American community. Ahmed has not been charged with any terrorist crime.
Tens of thousands of foreigners -- Irish nuns, Tibetan monks, Israeli cantors, Brazilian evangelists and others -- enter the United States each year as temporary religious workers on three- to five-year visas.
Such visits are possible because of a change -- originally pushed by the Roman Catholic and Christian Science churches -- in the 1990 Immigration and Nationality Act. Sections of the act specifically ban terrorism or international fund-raising activity.
Federal officials insist that they are not using the religious-workers provision to single out Muslims but say some people have abused the provision to preach and practice terrorism.
Also charged in the Lodi sweep were another Muslim cleric, Muhammed Adil Khan, 47, and his son Muhammed Hassan Adil, 19, whose court appearances are set for Wednesday and Thursday.
Basim Elkarra, Sacramento Valley director of the national Council on American-Islamic Relations, characterized the Lodi religious leaders as moderate figures involved in extensive interfaith activities with local churches and synagogues.
“The arrests have been a shock to the Lodi community,” Elkarra said.
Fremont attorney Saad Ahmad, who represents all three Lodi men charged with religious worker, or R-1, visa violations, accuses the government of using immigration laws to prosecute terrorism allegations for which it has offered no proof.
“There is not a single item of evidence that any of my three clients has ever been involved in, or in anyway associated with, any terrorist activity whatsoever,” Ahmad said in a June 13 statement on the case.
At the San Francisco hearing today, he is expected to demand bond for his clients in hopes that it will force the government to produce evidence of terrorism.
Two other men, Lodi ice-cream truck driver Umer Hayat, 47, and his son, Hamid Hayat, 22, both American citizens, are charged in Sacramento federal court with lying to FBI agents about Hamid’s alleged participation in a Pakistan terrorist camp.
All five Lodi men are being held without bail in Sacramento or Santa Clara County jails.
According to federal immigration records, there have been 145,000 foreign priest, religious worker and religious dependent admissions to the United States under “workers in religious occupations” provisions since 1992. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Chris Bentley said the number of individuals was somewhat lower, because most of the visas allow for multiple entries.
Over the last three years, the greatest numbers of religious-work admissions have been from Mexico (5,198), India (4,666), Canada (4,357), Britain (3,393) and South Korea (3,962).
Although the government does not keep track of such visas by religion, immigration records show that, in the same three years, more than 1,000 of the R-1 admissions have been for citizens of predominantly Muslim countries, including 270 from Egypt, 173 from Indonesia and 113 from Pakistan.
Enforcement actions involving Muslim religious workers began last fall with the arrest of 62-year-old Muhammad Khalil, imam of a Brooklyn, N.Y., mosque.
He was convicted in federal court of fraudulently sponsoring more than 200 applications for Pakistani religious workers for his Dar Ehya Essunah mosque. Although Khalil was not charged with terrorism, prosecutors in that case alleged in court that he was an “admirer of Osama bin Laden and his jihadist philosophy.”
After the conviction, Martin Ficke, special agent in charge for the U.S. immigration bureau in New York, announced: “Today, Khalil’s international smuggling pipeline has been shut down, and a potentially serious vulnerability ... has been closed.”
In January, Orange County Imam Wagdy Mohammed Ghoneim, a citizen of Egypt, left the United States voluntarily with his wife and seven children rather than face charges that he had overstayed his religious-worker visa.
Although the Anaheim-based Ghoneim was officially charged only with immigration violations, the government alleged that he was active in fundraising that could have helped terrorist organizations. “It is often much easier to make an immigration case than it is to prove terrorism,” said Virginia Kice, West Coast public affairs officer for the immigration bureau.
Last week, El Paso’s Muslim community was shocked by the arrest of 34-year-old Jordanian Imam Yaser Issa on immigration charges related to his R-1 visa. Like the Lodi imams, he has been characterized by local religious leaders as an ecumenical figure in the community. Mosque officials blamed the arrest on a paperwork mistake.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Southern California, is disturbed by what he views as a pattern of federal security agencies opening cases against American Muslims and Muslim immigrants with broad allegations of terrorism but going to court on relatively minor immigration infractions.
“There has been a history of abuse in immigration cases in which the government plays the trump card of terrorism,” Ayloush said. “By creating this initial image, you immediately deny them due process.”
For its part, the immigration bureau insists that the religious-workers crackdown is just one part of its across-the-board enforcement of visa rules in the post-9/11 era that has included hundreds of arrests on student visa and other violations.
“My worry,” said immigration bureau spokesman Dean Boyd in Washington, “is the suggestion that we are looking at religious workers from particular countries and targeting them for arrest. This is totally unfounded.”
Other religious leaders also express concern that reports of the Muslim clerics’ arrest could affect what they say has been a highly successful program, in which the overwhelming majority of visas have been granted to foreign Christians, led by Catholics.
Michael Hill, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, helped establish the religious-workers category in immigration law.
“I would hate to see a story that casually and without perspective inflamed the racist, xenophobic hate-mongers out there who would tar all immigrants as being terrorists,” he said.
Edina Lekovic is communications director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a public policy organization with offices in Washington and Los Angeles. She said that as long as there was a shortage of Muslim religious education in the United States, there would be a need for foreign imams. She estimated that about half of the 65 Los Angeles area mosques had imams here on R-1 visas.
“The reason that imams are recruited from overseas is because of their generally higher level of knowledge of Arabic, history and Islamic law,” Lekovic said. “It is a Band-Aid that bypasses what we would prefer, creating and training our own American-born religious leadership.”