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Monday, May 31, 2004

Summit Daily News for Breckenridge, African Muslims Feel Threatened

Summit Daily News for Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper and Frisco Colorado - News

SILVERTHORNE - West Africans who sought asylum from a threatening Mauritanian government faced U.S. government guns pointed at them at their homes in Silverthorne earlier this month during an immigration investigation.

West African community representative Oumar Niang said he believes the U.S. government detained half his community of asylees temporarily on May 19 because they are Muslim and because they are black.

"We do not want to bring any trouble here.

"The local police say we're always peaceful and friendly, and they never have trouble except a couple speeding tickets," Niang said.

"If they come and treat us like this, we should know the reason why. We thought the U.S. had the best human rights in the world.

"I understand a few foreigners are here illegally, including some of our neighbors from other countries, but they targeted all West Africans."

Agents from the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) visited workplaces and a couple dozen apartments where West Africans work and live in Summit County early the morning of May 19.

The agents were looking for two Mauritanians who were not granted asylum, but never left the U.S., as ordered. The West African community says it did not know their three peers who were permanently detained that day, were in the U.S. illegally.

There are an estimated 400,000 such individuals in the country posing a public safety threat, said Virginia Kice, a spokesman for ICE based in southern California.

Federal agents typically are armed on duty, she said.

During the Summit County search, undercover agents held Bocar Ba, 30, and his fellow Mauritanian housemates at gunpoint, Ba and others said.

Ba, who was successfully granted asylum in the United States, said he willingly let agents into his home.

He said he doesn't understand why agents treated him and his peers like criminals. He said he is upset the federal agents acted that way and did not ask questions first.

Two weeks before the incident, the West African community in Summit County set up a mosque, Niang said. The Muslim community of about 100 people pooled its money to rent a small apartment in town to use as a place to worship. They are concerned that the new mosque is the reason why they were targeted.

Government agents accused the detained Mauritanians of sending money to al-Qaida, the terrorist group, Niang said.

"It saddens me to think they are considered terrorists because they are, in fact, fleeing that kind of oppression," said James Horan, program director for Lutheran Refugee and Family Services in Denver.

In Mauritania, Northern Arabic Mauritanians are enslaving people and are taking over southerners' fertile homeland near the Senegal River.

The conflict is racial and continues to escalate as a major irrigation project on the Senegal River on the south Mauritanian border nears completion, according to Niang.

Several households have decided to move from Summit County since the May 19 incident. Not only has the slow season come to the resort community, but they said they do not feel safe here anymore.

Kice said if asylees believe they were treated unfairly they should report it to the Department of Homeland Security for an internal investigation.

Asylees here are concerned that the U.S. is adopting policies similar to European countries. There, refugees and asylees are ordered to leave regardless of whether they have a safe place to go or not.

The three detainees who were not granted asylum probably did not have a place to go, Niang said. It is unclear whether the Silverthorne search is related to Operation Compliance. The feds' pilot immigration enforcement of unsuccessful asylum seekers recently began in Hartford, Conn., and expanded in April into Denver and Atlanta.

Instead of being released on bond, asylees now must wait months in jail while their asylum status goes through the appeals process in immigration courts.

In the hearings, asylees must prove they face an individual fear of persecution on the basis of religious or ethnic affiliation.

Although he understands the reason for the immigration crackdown, Paul Stein has been advising congressional leaders and wants ICE to change parts of Operation Compliance.

Stein is the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Survivor Center, a nonprofit that assists survivors of torture and war trauma.

Agents are taking heavy-handed tactics with a population that has not proved to be armed and dangerous, Stein said. Mauritanians also complained of agents pulling covers off of slumbering asylees in Silverthorne.

"The problem isn't so much with the removal of absconders, but with the Draconian methods that are being taken," Stein said.

"High bonds and jail time are eliminating the possibility of freedom for many asylum seekers. The community they need most is the one they are alienating and forcing underground."

Americans need to understand that both security and liberty are human rights, Stein said. People in Washington, D.C., want to get it right but that attitude has not yet trickled down to ground-level enforcement, he said.

"If word gets out that this is the reception you get for fleeing persecution, people will live underground, look for other countries or stay in persecution."



Christine McManus can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 229 or at cmcmanus@summitdaily.com.

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