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When Ali Yassin Mohammed-Karim was airlifted out of Iraq in 1996 by U.S. forces, he breathed a sigh of relief. The Kurdish physician had by then survived two assassination attempts stemming from his implication in CIA-backed plots to overthrow Saddam Hussein. After a short stint in Guam undergoing interviews to establish his eligibility for political asylum, Ali was transported aboard a jet chartered by the Department of Defense to Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, where the young doctor would, he assumed, be processed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and free to begin his new life in the United States.
But Ali’s relief was short-lived. The INS, claiming that Ali was a threat to national security, blocked his legal entrance, jailed him, and sought to have him deported. Deportation would be a virtual death sentence for a man who had served as the private physician to one of Saddam’s most hated enemies. The official charge lodged by the INS: entering the country without a proper visa. Ali was, in effect, being accused of sneaking across the border onto U.S. soil, via Guam, aboard a Defense department-chartered jet.
Because it classified Ali as an alien “stopped at the border,” the INS was not obliged by U.S. law to offer him any rights to due process. To make matters worse, all of the information implicating Ali as a national security risk was deemed classified evidence by the FBI. The names of his accusers, the number of accusers, and even the crimes with which he was charged were strictly off limits to Ali and his legal counsel.
Thus began a three-year legal nightmare for Ali and five other Iraqis, a twisted series of events that former CIA director James Woolsey termed “a stain upon the honor of the United States.” Because of FBI bungling and an overzealous climate of secrecy, the six Iraqi refugees faced trumped-up charges which could have resulted in their deportation and certain death at the hands of an unsympathetic regime.
Ali’s case probably would have languished in the backrooms of the INS if a few senators hadn’t questioned the INS’s use of such secret evidence in deportation hearings. When the INS and FBI started to feel the heat from Congress, the organizations made a startling admission: Much of the information in Ali’s files, as well as the files of the five other detainees, had been deemed classified by the FBI by mistake.
In July 1998, after a year and a half in prison, Ali and the other detainees got their first look at some of the charges levied against them when the documents were declassified.