Old friendships stronger than nations’ anger

A series of fortuitous circumstances reconnects law prof Norm Aaronson with Iranians he taught while in the Peace Corps.

The U.S. and Iranian governments discourage contact with formal ties severed. But a Colorado law professor’s chance reconnection with Iranian orphans and a family he met 45 years ago as a Peace Corps teacher has led to a rekindling of friendships in the face of¬†conflict.

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Citizenship Case Takes a New Twist

New filings in the citizenship battle of a blind Palestinian
computer whiz show that the FBI completed its background check a
year ago but that Homeland Security officials then failed to rule
as required under federal law.

The government also has admitted it failed to comply fully with a
federal judge’s order to turn over the FBI background check
results.

U.S. District Judge Walker Miller on Thursday reordered the
government to provide full results of the FBI check on Colorado
resident Zuhair Mahd – to be sealed and delivered by the end of
next week.

Government lawyers say the FBI never reveals background-check
results whether they are positive or negative. Revealing results
“may interfere with ongoing law enforcement or national security
investigations or interests,” according to U.S. Attorney Troy
Eid’s latest filing.

Eid on Thursday said: “The government will comply with the court
order.”

Department of Homeland Security citizenship spokesman Chris Bentley
declined to comment on the delays.

The case has revealed irregularities in how the government carries
out security checks on citizenship applicants under a system
instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mahd is among tens of
thousands of applicants nationwide who have passed tests but have
been left in limbo.

After applying for citizenship in September 2004 and passing tests
three months later, Mahd waited and waited, told by citizenship
officials that the FBI hadn’t completed his background check. In
May 2006, he filed a lawsuit to force action and won this year when
Miller ordered the FBI to complete the check in 45 days.

Then, citizenship officials rejected Mahd’s application after he
refused to submit to an additional videotaped interview.

A computer expert who pioneered text-to-speech software, Mahd, 34,
is representing himself. He was born totally blind to Palestinian
refugees in Jordan and came to the United States as a teenager with
the help of U.S. officials. He has worked for IBM and on government
contracts, living in the country legally for 17 years.

Judge Miller has asked government lawyers why Mahd shouldn’t be
naturalized immediately.

U.S. Attorney Eid has argued Miller doesn’t have jurisdiction.
Federal judges once handled citizenship cases, but this duty was
transferred in the 1990s to the Department of Justice in an effort
to unburden courts.

U.S. immigration law says, however, that if applications of
immigrants who pass citizenship tests aren’t handled in 120 days,
the applicants can go to federal court and ask judges to decide.

Mahd said he’s bewildered to learn the FBI check has been done for
a year. He has appealed the denial.

“For all I know, they think I’m a heinous criminal or a
mischievous person. I’d like to clear this,” he said.

Iraqis to Call Denver Home

Over the next three weeks, the government plans to bring more than
1,400 refugees from Iraq to Denver and other U.S. cities – opening
doors that have been closed since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

By next year, the number of Iraqi refugees may swell to 12,000,
according to officials at the U.S. Departments of State and
Homeland Security.

Between 1992 and 2002, the U.S. accepted an average of 2,800 Iraqi
refugees a year. Since then, the annual average has dropped to
191.

The accelerated flow is in response to pressure to ease a worsening
humanitarian crisis, State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper
said.

“We want to take care of the people who have helped us, especially
those who might feel under threat,” Cooper said.

United Nations officials last week estimated one in seven Iraqis
have left their homes.

More than 2 million have made it to neighboring countries – the
largest Middle East displacement since the 1948 creation of
Israel.

The first refugees set to arrive in Denver are Nazar Al Taei, his
wife and their three children. They are scheduled to fly from
Jordan today.

Al Taei worked as a translator for the American military. His legs
were injured, leaving him with nerve problems, resettlement-agency
documents show. Fearing for their lives, the family fled to
Jordan.

Before the war in Iraq, Al Taei and his wife worked as
Russian-language teachers.

Others slated for resettlement in Denver include a woman with
breast cancer who hasn’t seen her husband since last year and
another who worked as an interpreter and secretary and is suffering
from serious depression and anxiety, the documents show.

An apartment off Colorado Boulevard has been furnished and stocked
for the Al Taei family. Local school officials await their
children, said Ferdi Mevlani, director of Ecumenical Refugee and
Immigration Services.

This Denver group is working on contract to guide about a dozen
Iraqi newcomers this month.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands more Iraqis clamor to get out,
according to U.N. and government officials.

“My family now, they are on the target,” said Omar Al Rahmani,
47, a Baghdad city councilman who translated for U.S. forces and
visited Denver twice on intergovernmental exchanges.

“My daughter’s school is 150 meters from my home. Even that is too
far,” Al Rahmani said in a telephone interview Friday.

“I don’t feel she’s safe, even though the school has four
guards,” Al Rahmani said. “I just want my family to be out in a
secure place. That’s all I want.”

For the U.S., accepting Iraqi refugees presents the major challenge
of screening out possible terrorists, said Paul Rosenzweig, deputy
assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security.

The Bush administration’s plan is to admit 10,000 to 12,000 Iraqis
a year, starting next year, Rosenzweig said.

“We’re doing enhanced background and biometric checks on people
coming out of Iraq to do the best we can to be sure those who are
admitted are deserving refugees, while at the same time screening
out those who might pose problems to us because of connections to
al- Qaeda in Iraq or other terrorist organizations,” he said.

By the end of this month, total Iraqi arrivals for 2007 should
reach 2,000, said Todd Pierce, spokesman for the State Department’s
migration bureau.

In the first seven months of 2007, some 190 Iraqi refugees were
admitted.

United Nations High Commission for Refugees officials are
negotiating with the U.S. to accept as many of the 2 million Iraqi
refugees as possible, U.N. spokeswoman Wendy Young said.

The commission asked U.S. officials to admit 10,110 U.N.- screened
Iraqis this year – nearly three times the 3,586 Iraqis referred to
all other countries.

The fleeing Iraqis all managed to escape to neighboring countries
such as Jordan, where authorities last week closed their borders
because they are swamped with refugees.

“We rely on the United States as a key partner in refugee
resettlement,” Young said.

Inside Iraq, an estimated 2.2 million more uprooted Iraqis face
dwindling options for escape. U.N. officials say 50,000 a month are
fleeing their homes.

Some in Congress still oppose accepting any Iraqi refugees.

“I don’t trust the (government) to vet them correctly,” said U.S.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.

Others, like U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., are pushing to help
more Iraqis out of a volatile situation.

“We’ve created it,” Perlmutter said. ” It’s a tragic situation.
And I don’t think we’ve come to grips with it.”

Perlmutter said he plans to introduce a bill that would admit up to
2,000 Iraqis who worked for U.S. diplomats and contractors in
Iraq.

“People who have assisted the United States should be welcome here
and be able to avoid persecution in Iraq, if that’s what they
choose,” he said.

Denver is seen as an ideal resettlement site because it has robust
agencies to help refugees from around the world, a healthy economy
and the capacity to treat torture victims, said Paul Stein,
coordinator of Colorado’s state refugee program and chairman of a
national advisory panel.

“By not making an effort to resettle more Iraqis, you’d definitely
feed into that notion of hypocrisy and double standards,” Stein
said.

About 41,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. last year among an
estimated 1.8 million legal and illegal immigrants.

Refugees, who are deemed unable to return safely to their home
countries, receive government assistance for 90 days.

Some Colorado leaders advocate resettling many more from Iraq.

“We’re directly affected by what’s happening in Iraq and the rest
of the world. … I’d like to see what tangible we can do to help
fulfill our moral obligations,” said state Rep. Joe Rice, who
served as a civil-affairs soldier in Iraq and hears regularly from
Iraqis wanting out.

But Rice said he’s also deeply conflicted. Many of those fleeing
Iraq “are the very people who are needed to try to stabilize
things, to build a new society there,” he said.

“If all the good people leave, who’s left to build a new
society?”

Feds Get Judicial Scolding

Judge exasperated at new delays in immigrant’s citizenship quest

Zuhair Mahd, a blind Palestinian computer programmer, has been in the U.S. legally for 17 years and passed his citizenship test in 2004.

A federal judge bristled with what he called “sheer disbelief” at
the government’s failure to follow his order in the case of a blind
Palestinian immigrant stalled in his quest for citizenship.

U.S. District Judge Walker Miller ordered federal authorities to
produce proof of an FBI background check of Colorado-based computer
expert Zuhair Mahd within 10 days.

Then, Miller said, he’ll decide whether he will rule on Mahd’s
long-delayed citizenship application – rather than leave it to the
Department of Homeland Security.

“This man’s been waiting since 2004,” Miller said. “This man has
rights.”

The federal court action Friday in Denver gave a glimpse into what
have become widespread problems in the government’s
background-check program for all citizenship applicants to guard
against terrorism, started after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Last month, Miller ordered the government to prove why Mahd
“should not be immediately naturalized.” In March, he ordered the
FBI to complete Mahd’s background check within 45 days – after Mahd
filed a federal lawsuit.

U.S. Attorney Troy Eid notified Miller that the check was done,
with results forwarded to immigration officials, yet no
documentation had been given to the court.

On Friday before Judge Miller, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth
Weishaupl argued that the judge has no jurisdiction to handle this
case.

“I have the jurisdiction to determine whether my order has been
followed,” Miller said.

“What you are saying is: ‘You have to have a name check.’ But then
there’s nothing to show whether it’s been done. … I am not
satisfied,” he said.

Eid later issued a written statement: “We are confident that the
FBI completed the name check within the time frame mandated by the
court, and we look forward to proving this fact to the judge.”

Federal judges rarely rule on citizenship applications. In the
early 1990s, that responsibility was transferred to immigration
officials overseen by the Department of Justice so that courts
wouldn’t be bogged down.

But now immigration cases increasingly end up back in federal
court. Judges nationwide face multiplying cases filed by
citizenship applicants who have passed tests – but still aren’t
approved. The FBI is struggling to process hundreds of thousands of
background checks.

U.S. law says immigrants who pass citizenship tests must have their
cases handled in 120 days. Otherwise, applicants can go to court
and ask judges to decide.

Mahd, 33, who has legally been in the U.S. for 17 years, passed his
citizenship test in December 2004.

He was born blind to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, and came to
the United States as a teenager with the help of U.S. officials. A
computer programmer, he has worked for IBM and on government
contacts, pioneering Arabic text-to-speech software.

After Mahd won his case compelling the FBI and Homeland Security to
handle his application, immigration officials demanded that he
provide additional documents and submit to videotaped interviews.

Mahd at first refused, saying he feared a fishing expedition. He
asked agents to explain why the additional demands were legally
justified.

In June, he complied and presented four years of tax records,
travel documents, employment data back to 1998 and more. He still
refused to be interviewed. This month, his application was denied.

Mahd has appealed that denial within Homeland Security’s
immigration system.

On Friday, Judge Miller said he wanted to see certified background
check results, not merely a declaration that the FBI check has been
done.

If the background check involves matters of national security,
Miller said, he will review the documents in his office.

Mahd, as a self-represented noncitizen, would not be able to attend
that meeting.

“I’m confident the judge would evaluate this properly,” he said
Friday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Weishaupl told Miller she needed to have
his request for background-check documentation in writing.

“You will note, of course, the irony of you wanting something in
writing,” Miller said, assuring her it would be done in the
tradition of open government.

“I have no hesitation to put my orders in writing for all to
see,” he said.