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Give me your deportables: protest outside the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia.

Removable Alien
Ansar Mahmood, despite widespread support, denied a deportation deferral

In the face of widespread outcry about the case of Ansar Mahmood, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (part of the Department of Homeland Security) has come out swinging. In a June 29 letter, BICE field director William Cleary denied Mahmood’s request for a deferred action on his deportation, in language so strong that Mahmood’s supporters have said it amounts to defamation of character.

Mahmood, a Pakistani immigrant with a green card living and working in Hudson, was arrested shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, for asking to have his picture taken by a reservoir. Though he was quickly cleared of all terrorism suspicions, in the process he was charged with harboring illegal aliens for having helped some friends who had overstayed their visas get an apartment and a car. He was found guilty, and sentenced to time served, but under the 1996 immigration laws, having a felony conviction made him immediately deportable, and he has been detained outside of Buffalo since October 2001.

A devoted network of supporters has rallied around Mahmood, saying he is a victim of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment [“Taking on the Deportation Machine,” Newsfront, Sept. 25, 2003].

Mahmood’s last legal avenue to avoid deportation was a request for a discretionary deferral. In his letter denying deferred action, Cleary repeatedly called Mahmood an “aggravated felon” (a term that applies only to immigrants) and emphasized that an immigration judge determined that Mahmood was “a liar and a perjurer,” and “anything but, consistent, believable, and credible.”

According to his current lawyer, Rolando Velasquez, and his supporters, Mahmood’s public defender told him to agree with everything he was asked (i.e. plead guilty) in order to receive a lenient sentence, not understanding that this would make him immediately deportable. Mahmood did so, saying under oath that he had known that his friends were here illegally. He has since said that wasn’t true.

Susan Davies, one of the leaders of Mahmood’s defense committee, calls Mahmood’s experience Kafkaesque. “You don’t know the culture, you don’t know what to do, you trust that people know what they’re talking about.”

“A lot of people get bad advice it seems from attorneys who don’t understand the immigration consequences of a plea deal or a violation,” said Velasquez. “I’ve been an immigration lawyer for 10 years, both with the government and in private practice. It’s funny how many times I’ve heard it on both sides.”

“How often have most of us been encouraged to change the truth of our story to lower a legal penalty even at the level of traffic court infractions?” wrote the Chatham Peace Initiative in its 14-point response to Cleary’s letter, which also noted that Cleary overstated Mahmood’s English proficiency, misleadingly implied that he had had numerous legal appeals, and neglected to mention his Congressional and international NGO support.

An earlier draft of the denial letter acquired by the press has some significant differences from the official version. “Your removal is in the best interests of national security,” Cleary wrote in that draft. That was later removed. “We’re not saying he’s a threat to national security, we’re saying he’s a convicted felon,” said Michael Gilhoody, BICE’s regional director for public affairs. (After sending this letter, Cleary went on vacation for a month.)

“If he was a citizen charged with this same action, he would’ve been on probation . . . with a conviction on his record, but still free on the streets,” noted Velasquez.

Gilhoody declined to make that comparison. “We don’t remove U.S. citizens,” he said. (The mission of BICE’s Office of Detention and Removal is “to promote the public safety and national security by ensuring the departure from the United States of all removable aliens . . .”)

Gilhoody said Mahmood’s supporters are “making issues which in fact don’t cut to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is Ansar Mahmood was charged with harboring, admitted to harboring, and was convicted of harboring.”

Criticism of Mahmood’s supporters shows up in Cleary’s letter as well, where he lists claims made by people who contacted him about the case, including that harboring should not be a crime, and that the conviction should be overlooked because he was originally picked up due to racial profiling. In the first draft of the letter he also mentions “general anti-US government sentiments.”

“He didn’t need to bring that up, so it must have been a factor in their decision,” said Davies. She said the group’s approach was “not political,” but “a lot of support came from people who could just write one letter or make one call, and we didn’t have control over what they said, and didn’t want to.”

Mahmood’s supporters’ next steps are lobbying his Congressional supporters (seven senators and 20 congresspeople so far) to introduce a private bill on his behalf and appealing to Cleary’s boss, Victor Cerda. Cerda, who was the target of a call-in day last Friday (July 2), did not return calls for comment.

Davies, who visited Mahmood last weekend, said he is “extremely sad, but he sees a larger picture.” She said he’s considering writing about his experiences.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Two Democrats, one seat: John Reilly... Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

Trailmix: Family Rivalry
Rare Democratic primary for Family Court judge raises profile of the court, and the selection process

A Family Court judgeship is a lot of work for not a lot of glory. But judicial aspirants have to start somewhere, and so an unexpected opening on the Albany County Family Court bench may lead to an equally unexpected Democratic primary.

The contenders are the Albany County Democratic Committee’s pick, John Reilly, and challenger Margaret Walsh, who has until July 15 to collect the 2,000 signatures needed to secure a spot on the ballot for a Sept. 14 primary, which is believed to be the first-ever Democratic primary for the county’s Family Court. They are running for the position of longtime Judge Beverly Tobin, the first, and so far only, woman to sit on the Albany County Family Court. Tobin retired barely three weeks ago.

Both Walsh and Reilly are attorneys familiar with the court. Walsh, 39 and now in private practice specializing in family law, was a law guardian for four years, serving as the appointed legal representative of children who came before the court. Reilly, 45, has been a support magistrate in the court for six years, deciding child-support issues at the rate of 3,000 cases a year.

Both candidates are Albany natives, active in both party politics and county and city government. Both were among the 16 applicants vying for the party’s backing for the judgeship, which pays a salary of $119,800 for a 10-year term.

Reilly was ranked “highly qualified” by the party’s selection committee, and subsequently given the endorsement, while Walsh earned the respectable but lesser ranking of “qualified.”

Walsh is serious about the job. “I have a lot of experience in Family Court,” she said. “I think it’s extremely gratifying work; you get to make a difference in a family’s life.” Asked why she is attempting a move that may gain her grudging admiration for her moxie but not much else from party leaders, she noted, “I have a lot of experience with these so-called ‘party people.’ They’re my friends. So I’ve not had any negative experience with them. The job of Family Court judge is not about politics; it’s about children.”

Walsh said she hopes voters will remember that she is a Democrat with solid Irish-Italian family roots in the city. “When you think about a sense of community, it was really about strong families, and that’s a wonderful way to raise children,” Walsh said of the ethnic communities of Albany’s past.

Walsh says a woman with a range of experience in politics, government and Family Court would provide a good balance on the bench. She has been an assistant corporation counsel and an assistant commissioner for the city’s Department of Taxation and Assessment, and worked on corporation counsel Gary Stiglmeier’s unsuccessful bid for a City Court judgeship two years ago.

...and Margaret Walsh. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

“The advantage to diversity is that it brings a broad perspective to the court,” Walsh said. “I think it’s important for people to know that I am a Democrat, and that I stand for the beliefs of the Democratic Party—diversity, inclusion, representation for the disenfranchised.”

Reilly also speaks of the emotional rewards of the job. “Family Court is definitely a place where there’s an awful lot of raw emotion,” he says. “I really can’t think of anything better than to be in a situation where you can help families and kids. Ten years would be great; I’d like to do it until I retire.”

As an assistant district attorney under former Albany County DA Sol Greenberg, he handled some cases involving teenagers charged as adults, including the 1995 trial of 15-year-old Abiodun Jahi Knox, one of the youngest people in Albany County ever convicted of murder. Reilly said he’d like to develop a program of community volunteers working in Family Court.

“I’d love to see something to address juvenile delinquents and kids seen at risk of falling into a pattern of incarceration,” Reilly said.

The winner of the primary will go on to face the Republican candidate, attorney Lisa Harris, 35, the general counsel for the New York State Consumer Protection Board. She’s a Schenectady native and the daughter of educators, whose own schooling started in the Head Start program. Harris, who is black, said she was raised in a spirit of social consciousness that will serve her well in a court that deals with an overwhelming number of low-income and minority families.

“A lot of people say our children are our future, our children are our tomorrow,” Harris said. “My message is, ‘Our children are today.’ The family unit as a whole, no matter what form it comes in, needs to be recognized.”

Family Court judge is a draining job where the decisions rest entirely on the judge, because there are no juries. “It requires a lot of patience, because a high number of people are not helped by attorneys; they go in on their own,” said attorney Paul Van Ryn, who has practiced before Albany County Family Court for nearly 25 years. “And typically, you’re dealing with issues that are very emotional. And this is why I think Family Court judges have more responsibility than other judges.”

“It’s a great patronage job,” said Libby Post, an activist in the lesbian/gay community who worked briefly on Walsh’s campaign. “The [Democratic] Party is interested, I think, in keeping it under their control.”

Family Court judges appoint law guardians for children who need advocates and representatives. Law guardians earn $75 an hour, far less than most attorneys in private practice, for what court observers call a thankless task. A new judge of the party’s pick would probably follow the party’s recommendation on other patronage possibilities such as staff appointments.

A week ago, an appointed panel issued a report that sharply criticized New York’s method of electing judges: Candidates are picked by the parties after a recommendation by a party selection committee. The report said the system is rife with party politics and outside influences.

Bruce Shultis, the first vice chair of the Albany County Democratic Committee, said that party chair and Albany city treasurer Betty Barnette has worked to make that existing system as open as possible. Barnette did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Musing on the upcoming primary, Shultis said, “I’ve known Peg [Walsh] for years. I like Peg a lot. She opted to primary, and I guess that’s what she had to do.”

—Darryl McGrath

Still speaking out: Shokriea Yaghi. Photo by: Teri Currie

It Can Happen Here
Local residents cast spotlight on Arab-American persecution taking place close to home

At a forum held last week in Delmar, Shokriea Yaghi [“Local Heroes,” December 19, 2002], a local resident whose husband was deported to Jordan in June 2002, echoed a sentiment that has become all too familiar in recent years.

“It’s almost impossible to think that this could happen anywhere, especially that it could happen here,” said Yaghi, who described the circumstances leading to her husband’s arrest and subsequent deportation in order to raise awareness of Arab-American persecution in the Capital Region.

The FBI took Ali Yaghi, Shokriea’s husband, into custody in late September 2001, after receiving a report that he made anti-American remarks. Ali spent nine months in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and was deported to Jordan in June 2002 for overstaying his visa. No criminal charges were filed against him.

Recently, a report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice found that during the time of Ali’s detention, “MDC staff members misused strip searches and restraints to punish detainees and that officers improperly and illegally recorded detainees’ meetings with their attorneys.”

“I can’t believe that my government, my home, could do something like that,” said Shokriea, who also claimed that her husband was about to receive his green card—after many years of bureaucratic confusion—when he was arrested.

According to Shokriea, she was made aware of her husband’s deportation only when a package of his belongings arrived in the mail. She now travels back and forth between Jordan and the United States in order to see her family and continue the campaign for Ali’s citizenship.

“I need my kids to be able to stand up when they’re men and say, ‘What happened, happened, but our father didn’t do it,’ ” said Yaghi.

Joining her at the forum, which was sponsored by local advocacy group Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, was Imam Warith-Deen Umar, a Bethlehem resident who also claims to have been victimized by anti-Muslim sentiment following the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

According to Umar, he was removed from his position as a Muslim chaplain in the federal prison system and banned from volunteering in state prisons due to a February 2003 Wall Street Journal story that accused him of disseminating anti-American propaganda. After the WSJ article was published, Gov. George E. Pataki, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other state officials made similar accusations against Umar during a statewide investigation of Muslim chaplains.

While Umar missed the deadline to sue Schumer and Pataki for defamation of character—the result of bad legal advice, he claims—his lawsuit against the WSJ has been filed in the state’s court system and will proceed.

Before his dismissal, Umar had founded the National Association of Muslim Chaplains and served for 25 years in the New York State Department of Correctional Services. During that time, he was instrumental in increasing the number of Muslim chaplains serving New York prison inmates, 20 percent of whom are Muslim.

Umar, an outspoken critic of American policy, contends that his voice is one of analysis and dissent, not the “hate speech” his detractors describe. The growth of anti-American sentiment in foreign nations, according to Umar, is not a condemnation of freedom or democracy, but an indication of deep-rooted problems within American culture.

“I never projected myself as a patriot,” said Umar at last week’s forum. “I’m a Muslim first, a black man second, and an American third.”

And it is the right to develop these priorities, reasoned Umar, which Americans must protect.

During the discussion following each speaker’s presentation, members of the audience—which included several Arab-American and Muslim attendees among the assembly of about 40 individuals—spoke of the need for local residents to take action in the protection of civil rights.

“We’ve often discussed the question of where the good Germans were [during World War II],” said Joe Lombardo, a member of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, which is assisting Umar’s legal defense. “I’m afraid that it will eventually be asked, ‘Where were the good Americans?’ I’d like to answer that they were out in the streets, fighting this.”

—Rick Marshall

Steamy River
Photo by: John Whipple

An up-close-and-personal view of the mouth of the Mohawk River from Dave Conroy’s steam-powered boat Galatea, which was part of Waterford’s second annual Steamboat Meet last Saturday (July 3). The meet was intended to celebrate Waterford’s historical connections to steam power and to draw more visitors to the harbor. More than a dozen steamboats participated, steaming into town in a procession from Troy to Waterford on Friday afternoon.

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