Sunday, June 06, 2004

The New York Times > New York Region > A 9/11 Lesson: Don't Photograph the Water

The New York Times > New York Region > A 9/11 Lesson: Don't Photograph the Water


June 6, 2004
A 9/11 Lesson: Don't Photograph the Water

UDSON, N.Y. - On a cloudless autumn day three years ago, Ansar Mahmood, a pizza deliveryman for a Domino's near here, took a few hours off from work to snap pictures of the Hudson River amid the foliage, to send home to his family in Pakistan.

Mr. Mahmood had seen the view from a customer's house on Rossman Avenue, but was told it was even better up the street. So up he went, to a bluff overlooking the river and the Catskill Mountains next to some official-looking buildings. He said he knocked on a door and asked an employee to take his picture. "He said, 'Of course, of course,' " Mr. Mahmood recalled.

That moment marked the end of Mr. Mahmood's brief American dream, as he stumbled into a vortex of fear, politics and deportation proceedings.

The official-looking buildings turned out to be a water-treatment plant for the city of Hudson. The crisp afternoon fell exactly four weeks after Sept. 11, when the nation was panicked at the possibility of more terror attacks, including poisoned drinking water.

And Mr. Mahmood - who had hit the ultimate jackpot for a young Pakistani when he won a green card through a lottery - was suddenly from the wrong part of the world.

Any notion that Mr. Mahmood was tied to terrorism quickly evaporated into the fluorescent ether of the Hudson police station. But he was soon charged with helping Pakistani friends whose visas had expired, an offense that led to his detention and pending deportation.

With his arrest, Mr. Mahmood became part of the wave of Arab and Muslim aliens and citizens who were detained for questioning in the two months after Sept. 11. A United States Department of Justice report estimates that 1,200 people were rounded up, but advocates for the detainees say the number was much higher. Like Mr. Mahmood, many were then prosecuted for immigration violations or past crimes.

But the moment also thrust him into the embrace of a local community of peace activists who took up his cause with a gritty intensity.

They circulated petitions and propelled Mr. Mahmood's story into a number of national media outlets. They strategized in weekly meetings and button-holed politicians in an effort to prevent his deportation, recently winning letters of support from seven United States senators, including Hillary Rodham Clinton.

They became so fond of Mr. Mahmood, a slight 26-year-old with a searching gaze and a quick grin, that they have traveled hours, individually and as a group, to visit him at a detention center outside Buffalo. One supporter awaits his call every Thursday between 2 and 4 p.m. Another sent him a copy of the Emily Dickinson poem "Hope Is the Thing With Feathers."

"We started doing this from an abstract, idealistic point of view - that they can't pull someone off the streets of Hudson, that it was racial profiling - and all of that is still important," said Susan Davies, a supporter who prodded her fellow advocates from the nearby Chatham Peace Initiative to rally around Mr. Mahmood.

"But since then we've gotten to know Ansar very well," she added. "He's very spiritual and loves beauty and that's why he took that picture that got him into trouble in the first place."

When Mr. Mahmood returned to the Domino's in Greenport later that evening, on Oct. 9, two police officers were waiting for him. (A treatment plant worker had reported him after he left.) The next 24 hours, he said, were a frightening blur.

He was handcuffed and placed in a holding area at the police station, in Hudson. There he was questioned by a stream of federal agents who had converged on this quiet city in Columbia County, a popular antiques center 109 miles north of New York City.

They wanted to know why he was interested in the water-treatment facility, what connection he had to the World Trade Center attack. Mr. Mahmood recalled explaining that he did not even know that there was a water-treatment plant.

Eventually, the investigators found that he was just a hapless immigrant taking pictures. As Senator Charles E. Schumer wrote in March, calling for his release, Mr. Mahmood was "cleared by the F.B.I. of any suspected terrorist activity, including tampering with the water supply."

But during a search of Mr. Mahmood's apartment, law enforcement officials uncovered evidence that he had helped a Pakistani couple by co-signing their apartment lease and registering their car in his name. In an interview from the detention center in Batavia, N.Y., Mr. Mahmood said he was a good friend of the couple's: the woman's brother was his best friend in Pakistan.

But he said that he did not know they were here illegally, explaining that it would have been rude to discuss their immigration status. "They never ask me if I have a green card, and I cannot ask them either," he said.

Mr. Mahmood was then charged with harboring illegal aliens, which is a felony, and following the advice of his court-appointed lawyer, pleaded guilty. In January 2002, he was sentenced to five years' probation and time served. But by pleading guilty, he was automatically subject to deportation and detention.

One of nine children from a poor family in Punjab, Mr. Mahmood is now waiting for the federal Department of Homeland Security to decide whether he can somehow find a way back to his former life.

It was a life in which he worked up to 14 hours a day, earning enough money to send home $400 to $500 a month to his ailing parents. The money had allowed his three younger sisters to attend good schools for the first time. "Everything was looking up," he said, and his family had begged him to send home photographs of the Hudson region where he had settled.

Through a new lawyer, Mr. Mahmood has asked the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, to release him despite his guilty plea.

Specifically, he is seeking to have his deportation deferred, a rare status that would allow him to stay in the country with working papers under a supervised release.

"It's very discretionary," said his new lawyer, Rolando R. Velasquez, who took the case pro bono. "It's something that is only used in exceptional circumstances, and we're hoping that this qualifies."

A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Michael W. Gilhooly, said that the agency could not act on Mr. Mahmood's petition until an appeal that he has pending in federal court is withdrawn. Mr. Velasquez said the appeal would be withdrawn shortly.

Mr. Mahmood's supporters, who recently worked through a 21-point agenda at a weekly gathering in the village of Chatham, are optimistic. "They can't afford to deport him, not in the face of Abu Ghraib and seven senators," said Bob Elmendorf, a retired state employee and the one who reserves Thursday afternoons for their phone conversation.

Indeed, the latest coup was a May 21 letter of support from five Democratic United States 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 J. Leahy of Vermont - cited a report last year from the Justice Department's own inspector general that criticized the roundup and detention of hundreds of Muslim and Arab immigrants after Sept. 11.

The report, the letter said, "noted that 'it is unlikely that most if not all of the individuals arrested would have been pursued by law enforcement' but for the Sept. 11th investigation and that 'some appear to have been arrested more by virtue of chance encounters ....' " Mr. Mahmood's core group of seven supporters has tried to keep the heat on. In late May they organized a call-in to an immigration official in Buffalo, and they are now arranging a tour of the detention center.

They have also assured federal officials that Mr. Mahmood will be well positioned upon his release.

"He has at least 10 to 15 offers of a place to live and all kinds of offers for jobs," said Azim Goldrick, a handyman who has visited Mr. Mahmood four times.

Not everyone in Columbia County believes Mr. Mahmood should be allowed to stay, however. Robert Nedwick, a 32-year-old construction worker, lives on Rossman Avenue near the water-treatment plant.

"He got caught trespassing and that led to this other thing he got in trouble for," he said. "If you break the law, you should be punished."

But his supporters are encouraged that they now have more than 2,000 signatures on a petition. And their unrelenting advocacy will continue, they say, until Mr. Mahmood is released or deported.

"There have been thousands of deportations since 9/11 for very bureaucratic reasons and glitches," said Marcie Gardner, a supporter. "But he is someone taken from our midst. He was taken 20 minutes from where I live, and that's not O.K."

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