2004-12-24 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

What Am I Missing?
by Stuart W. Mirsky

Last June, The New York Times ran a lead article in its Metro section concerning one Ansar Mahmoud, a green card-holder from Pakistan who fell afoul of authorities in the weeks following 9/11. According to the reporter, Lisa Fodero, Mr. Mahmoud, a pizza delivery man, stopped one day on a delivery run to photograph the scenic Hudson River Valley so he could send pictures back to his relatives in Pakistan. Alas, the site Mr. Mahmoud chose to photograph from was next to a New York City water treatment plant and authorities scooped him up when they learned of his actions. Ms. Fodero says “the nation was panicked” after 9/11 and feared “poisoned drinking water.”

Well, Mr. Mahmoud, Ms. Fodero tells us, was soon cleared of any taint of terrorism but it turned out he had been helping Pakistani friends whose visas had expired, “an offense that led to his detention and pending deportation.”

Ms. Fodero goes on to note that “with his arrest, Mr. Mahmoud became part of the wave of Arab and Muslim aliens and citizens who were detained for questioning in the two months after Sept. 11th.” Estimated at about 1200 people by the U.S. Justice Department, “advocates for the detainees,” says Fodero, “say the number is much higher.”

A local community of “peace activists” soon became aware of Mr. Mahmoud’s plight, according to Ms. Fodero, and stepped in to aid him, winning “letters of support from seven United States Senators including Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Calling the authorities’ actions in arresting Mr. Mahmoud “racial profiling” one local activist is reported to have said that Mr. Mahmoud is “very spiritual and loves beauty and that’s why he took the picture that got him into trouble in the first place.”

Though cleared of suspicions of terrorism, evidence surfaced that Mr. Mahmoud had assisted other immigrants from Pakistan, who were here illegally, to remain. Mr. Mahmoud, on the advice of his attorney, pled guilty when this became known, and was sentenced to five years probation along with time served. But, by pleading guilty, he automatically became subject to deportation and detention. Mr. Mahmoud is now contesting this, represented by a new attorney, according to Fodero, and awaiting the decision of the Homeland Security Department.

“They can’t afford to deport him, not in the face of Abu Ghraib and seven senators,” one of his supporters told Ms.Fodero. “Indeed,” Fodero adds, the group’s “latest coup was a May 21 letter of support from five Democratic senators addressed to the homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge. The letter - signed by Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin and Patrick Leahy of Vermont - cited a report last year from the Justice Department’s own Inspector General that criticized the round-up and detention of hundreds of Muslim and Arab immigrants after Sept. 11th.”

According to Fodero, the letter noted that the report said “it is unlikely that most if not all of the individuals arrested would have been pursued by law enforcement” except, she notes, “for the Sept. 11th investigation.”

There are, of course, some dissenters in the upstate town where Mr. Mahmoud’s activist supporters reside. Ms. Fodero notes that one, “a 32-year-old construction worker” says of Mr. Mahmoud that “he got caught trespassing and that led to this other thing he got in trouble for. If you break the law, you should be punished.”

Still the tone of Ms. Fodero’s article is best summed up by her final quote from a Mahmoud-supporter: “There have been thousands of deportations since 9/11 for very bureaucratic reasons and glitches. But he is someone taken from our midst. He was taken 20 minutes from where I live and that’s not okay.”

Of course, we can all sympathize with this individual’s sense of concern and with Mr. Mahmoud’s plight. Obviously there are quite a few highly placed politicians who also sympathize. In fact, if Mr. Mahmoud’s actions with regard to the immigration law violations are shown to be merely minor and/or inadvertent (as he claims) and if he has demonstrated good intentions while in this country on his green card otherwise, I would not have a problem with the Department of Homeland Security ruling in his favor.

But my concern here is for something else: when you break the law, shouldn’t you have to pay the price? There may be all sorts of extenuating circumstances and our system of justice enables these to be considered through the sort of process Mr. Mahmoud is now pursuing. But the bottom line is he pled guilty to a criminal act that placed his green card status in jeopardy. What kind of an argument is it that, since his lawbreaking wouldn’t have become known if he hadn’t been picked up because of his suspicious behavior after 9/11, he should not, therefore, be held to account for breaking other laws? In fact, people stopped by the police for all sorts of reasons always run the risk of arrest if they have outstanding warrants against them or are legally discovered, in the course of the arrest, to have broken other laws.

And then there’s this business about “racial profiling” which seems to be taking some of us off the deep-end. The people who gave us 9/11 happen to fall into a particular, and very recognizable, category.... as do the people who persistently promise us more of the same. They all hail from a certain part of the world, espouse certain views, belong to certain ethnic backgrounds, etc. This is just a matter of fact. Certainly neither Mr. Mahmoud, nor anyone else, should be considered guilty of a crime just because of their ethnicity or what they happen to look like. But it’s not wrong to be on the alert if people fitting certain descriptions are seen to be performing certain suspicious and potentially threatening actions.

Mr. Mahmoud was rightly picked up in the aftermath of 9/11 for doing something that could have signaled great danger to this country. In the light of what we now know, it’s not paranoid or irrational to fear the poisoning of our drinking water by some individuals who come from the Middle East or related areas of the world. And Mr. Mahmoud, innocent or guilty of charges of terrorism, apparently did break other laws... which has, and should have, consequences.

You don’t have to be an American citizen to be expected to abide by American laws when you are a guest in this country. Nor is a green card a get-out-of-jail-free card. rockirreg@aol.com


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