The Crescent Report

December 14, 2007

Cleric claims he was pressured to leave

Filed under: Immigration — Imam Mahdi Bray @ 5:26 pm

A South Florida imam says U.S. officials pressured him to give up his immigration appeals and leave the country voluntarily. A Muslim group says the imam’s case is part of a troubling trend in which religious leaders are compelled to become informants or risk being deported.

Foad Farahi, 33, of the Shamsuddin Islamic Center in North Miami Beach, says a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutor offered him a deal: leave the country within 30 days, or face arrest for ”support of terrorist groups,” he said. Three years ago, he said, the FBI sought him out to be an informant and he refused.

ICE officials said there was no coercion. ”These claims have no basis in fact,” said Sean Teeling, ICE assistant field office director for detention and removal. “Mr. Farahi was represented by an attorney when he requested and was granted the benefit of voluntary departure.”

Farahi, an Iranian national, wants political asylum. He was born in Kuwait, but has an Iranian passport, based on his father’s birthplace. A Sunni, Farahi said he fears being sent to Iran, where Shiites are the majority.

The imam said Wednesday that he first accepted the voluntary departure offer out of fear. He has since hired a new lawyer in an attempt to overturn that decision. He was detained by ICE on Nov. 26 for more than a week and released on bond.

Farahi has a hearing in Miami federal court Thursday to reopen his asylum petition. Ira Kurzban, a national authority on immigration law, is now representing him.

The Muslim American Society maintains that Farahi’s case is part of an ”emerging pattern” affecting Muslim religious leaders offered voluntary departure. The group has confirmed four cases in the past two months and received 10 other complaints.

”They tried to recruit these people as spies and snitches and all of the sudden find themselves being pushed into voluntary departure, and I can’t help but believe there is a connection between the two,” said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the society’s Freedom Foundation.

”We are not opposed to standing up for this country and passing on information about acts of criminality,” Bray said, “but law enforcement is not acting in the best way.”

Farahi’s case highlights the growing frustration among Muslim groups since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even as the FBI and other federal authorities say they continue to reach out to U.S. Muslim leaders.

Teeling said “if they give us specific cases, we’ll be glad to investigate.”

In 2004, Farahi said, FBI agents asked him to provide information on the community, offering him a ”stay of deportation” if he cooperated.

”His claims are not accurate,” said FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela. “Immigration [enforcement] is a totally separate issue that we have nothing to do with.”

Farahi says that in the years since the offer he has helped the FBI build good relations with Muslims.

Farahi, who was born in Kuwait to a Syrian mother and an Iranian father, concedes his background might raise flags.

‘Even though I haven’t done anything wrong, I can see how these things might make people uncomfortable because I have [one-third] of the `axis of evil’ in my background,” he said. “Here, most of the cases are Cuban refugees. . . . they’re not used to dealing with someone from the Middle East.”

Farahi has never been to Iran and does not speak Farsi. Under Kuwaiti laws, he is not entitled to citizenship and lost his residency status after coming to the U.S. to attend college in 1993. He was raised in his mother’s Sunni religion.

”I’m considered Americanized, so if I go back to Iran they may think I am an American agent,” said Farahi. “There have been a lot of people in my situation who have been harassed.”

Deportations to Iran dropped from 60 in 2003 to 28 in 2005, according to the Homeland Security Department. The number of Iranians granted asylum also dropped during that time, from 322 to 140.

Farahi has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology from Barry University and a master’s in public health. He lost his student visa in 1999 after failing to take enough credits. His efforts to reinstate that status were complicated by 9/11, he said. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in public health at Florida international University. His father, who owns a money-exchange business in Kuwait, has financed his education.

Farahi became the imam at Shamsuddin in 2001. The storefront mosque, with about 200 congregants, serves a diverse Muslim community.

”It would be very difficult for us to find another imam who serves us so well, because we have such a wide cultural range,” said Una Mohammed-Khan, the president of the center’s board.

Shamsuddin members have organized benefit dinners to raise funds for his legal defense.

Sofian Abdelaziz Zakkout, local director of the American Muslim Association of North America, praised Farahi. ”This guy has been good for our American community,” Zakkout said. “He deserves all of our support.”

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