NJ Muslim leader wins immigration fight

September 4, 2008 10:28:43 AM PDT
An influential New Jersey Muslim leader whom U.S. authorities had sought to link to a terrorist group and have deported has won his fight to gain permanent U.S. residency.A federal immigration judge in Newark ruled Thursday that Mohammad Qatanani, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, can remain in the U.S.

The 44-year-old Palestinian has served as the imam, or Muslim religious leader, since 1996 at the mosque in Paterson, a city that is home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the region.

U.S. immigration authorities had sought to deport Qatanani on grounds that he failed to disclose on his green card application a prior arrest and conviction in Israel for being a member of Hamas - a group classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

Qatanani has denied being a Hamas member and said he was detained, not arrested, by the Israelis while traveling to his native West Bank in 1993. He said he was not notified of the charges against him nor his conviction.

In 2005, he initiated a meeting with immigration officials to inquire about the delay in his green card application, during which he told them about his detention in Israel. U.S. officials later received documents from Israel that claimed he had been arrested and convicted.

During testimony at his immigration hearing in June, Qatanani spoke of the mental and physical abuse he endured in detention, and argued such practices were routine at the time.

A 71-page written decision issued by immigration Judge Alberto J. Riefkohl questioned the reliability of the records submitted by the Department of Homeland Security purporting to show Qatanani's arrest and conviction in Israel.

Riefkohl's decision called the U.S. government's case against Qatanani "patently incomplete," and found its two key witnesses - both federal agents - to not be credible.

"Their testimony is tainted by the lack of an accurate record and their inconsistent and contradictory testimony," Riefkohl wrote.

Qatanani emigrated from Jordan in 1996 on a religious worker visa to lead the New Jersey mosque. He applied for permanent U.S. residency in 1999 for himself, his wife and three of their six children who were not born in America.

Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sought to portray Qatanani as a terrorist-affiliated Muslim activist, quoting a sermon he gave at the Paterson mosque in which he called Israelis "transgressors" and questioning his ties to his brother-in-law, a convicted Hamas terrorist who was killed by the Israelis.

Government lawyers also said Qatanani had been an outspoken university leader during his student days in Jordan.

The judge found no credible evidence linking him to terrorism and wrote that family ties to a convicted terrorist do not make someone a terrorist. He said testimony in support of the imam from U.S. law enforcement officials made his application credible.

"The Court has to emphasize that the enigma in this regard is not created by Mr. Qatanani, his answers, nor his testimony," the decision reads. "This ambiguity is created by DHS, the FBI, other Federal Agencies and the Israeli government whose acts, cumulatively, have avoided disclosing to this Court the real and actual facts surrounding Mr. Qatanani's imprisonment in the West Bank in 1993."

His immigration fight garnered national attention for the unusual spectacle of high-ranking law enforcement officials taking the stand on his behalf.

Qatanani received words of support as late as Wednesday night from several high-ranking law enforcement officials - including U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie - who attended a Ramadan fast-breaking celebration at the Paterson mosque.

"My view is he's always had a very good relationship with us, and he's a man of great good will," Christie said Wednesday before exchanging traditional cheek kiss greetings with him and wishing him well.

Christie was joined by Weysan Dun, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Newark office; U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.; county prosecutors; sheriffs, and the director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security in praising Qatanani and the role of mosque members in building bridges with law enforcement in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

During Qatanani's immigration hearing, Jewish, Catholic and Episcopalian leaders also testified that they viewed him as a moderate Muslim leader dedicated to interfaith outreach. Hundreds of his supporters kept a vigil outside the courthouse during his trial, which began in early May.

Thursday's decision means that Qatanani, his wife and their three foreign-born children can now become legal permanent U.S. residents.

Both parties have 30 days to appeal the ruling.

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