Saturday, May 22, 2004

5 U.S. senators join effort to win immigrant's freedom

5 U.S. senators join effort to win immigrant's freedom

5 U.S. senators join effort to win immigrant's freedom
(Original publication: May 22, 2004)

Five prominent Democratic senators have joined Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York in calling for the release of a Pakistani pizza deliveryman detained in a federal prison near Buffalo for 2 1/2 years in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Sens. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis.; Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.; Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.; Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.; and Jon S. Corzine, D-N.J., yesterday urged Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to release Ansar Mahmood, 26, an immigrant who lived and worked legally in Hudson, N.Y.

The Journal News first reported in September on Mahmood's struggle to overcome a deportation order.

In January, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., became the first high-profile politician to add his support to a Hudson Valley citizens group that has sought to free Mahmood by lobbying public officials, circulating petitions and holding rallies.

The five senators yesterday asked Ridge to allow Mahmood to remain in the United States under a form of probation. Mahmood has several offers of housing and employment in Columbia County, the upstate community where he lived after winning an immigration visa in a diversity lottery in April 2000. By working up to 14 hours a day delivering pizzas, he earned enough money to move his parents and younger sisters out of poverty in Pakistan.

"Preventing future terrorist attacks must be one of the highest priorities for our nation," the senators wrote yesterday, adding "these efforts should be both effective and conducted within the parameters set by the U.S. Constitution."

Their letter points out that "hundreds of Muslim and Arab immigrants were rounded up and detained on immigration violations within days and weeks of the September 11th attacks." However, "none of these individuals were charged with terrorism." Instead, "they were held in custody under a cloud of suspicion and many were later deported for immigration violations."

In June 2003, the Justice Department's own inspector general issued a report critical of "this mass roundup and detention policy," the senators reminded Ridge. They quoted the inspector general, noting that "it is unlikely that most if not all of the individuals arrested would have been pursued by law enforcement" had it not been for the Sept. 11th investigation. Rather, the report states, "some appear to have been arrested more by virtue of chance encounters."

An FBI investigation of Mahmood indicates that he poses no security threat, the senators said.

Susan Davies, an organizer of the Ansar Mahmood Defense Committee, said yesterday by phone from Columbia County, that the support from the senators, all of whom, except Corzine, are members of the Senate's Judiciary Committee, lends substantial weight to the movement started in the community of blue-collar workers, farmers and antiques dealers.

Department of Homeland Security spokesman William Strassberger, however, said it would take a full pardon or a bill sponsored by a member of Congress on Mahmood's behalf for him to remain in the United States with the privileges of a permanent resident, including the right to work and to re-enter the country after travel abroad.

Mahmood's troubles began in October 2001 when he asked a security guard at the Hudson reservoir to snap a photo of him against a backdrop of brilliant fall foliage. The scene, unbeknownst to him, included a water treatment facility.

Mahmood was arrested on suspicion of tampering with the water supply but was quickly cleared of the charge. During a police search of his home, however, it was discovered that he had co-signed an apartment lease and registered a car for Pakistani friends who had overstayed their tourist visas.

Mahmood said he was unaware that the couple were in the United States illegally, but he followed his public defender's advice and pleaded guilty in hopes that the court would show him sympathy.

Mahmood received five years' probation on the charge of "harboring aliens" and under immigration law became subject to deportation. He was placed in detention in January 2002. Mahmood recently dropped his court battle to remain in the United States and is asking for supervised release back to Hudson instead.

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