Exiled as a ‘Security’ Threat, Former Orland Man May Soon Return
By Allison Hantschel, Orland Park Patch, September 14th
A suburban Chicago Muslim leader exiled from the United States after 9/11 could be back as early as this fall after a federal judge declared the government’s argument for keeping him away “totally asinine.”
Sabri Samirah, formerly of Orland Park, has spent the past eight years in his native Jordan. In 2003, he traveled there to visit his sick mother and on his way back was stopped by immigration authorities, informed he was a “national security risk” and barred from returning to America.
Today, his lawyer is negotiating the terms of his return to America. Samirah is hopeful he will be back before the end of the year.
Married to a teacher at Bridgeview’s Islamic school, Samirah ran a Muslim voting rights group and was a powerful advocate for moderate Islam following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. His 2003 banishment, and the Bush administration’s refusal to give any reason for it, sparked a fierce legal battle and public debate over the reach of executive authority in the name of security.
His return now to a country much changed by the past decade’s political upheaval is symbolic of the fallout faced by those who, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, became targets of a country’s suspicion, fear and rage.
“9/11 produced a lot of hysteria in the government,” said Mark Flessner, the former federal prosecutor who represented Samirah in his suit against the federal government. “We have a different perspective on that now.”
Lived in the U.S. for 15 Years
Samirah was born in Jordan in 1967, the son of Palestinian refugees. He came to Chicago as a student in 1987, intending to get a degree and return to Jordan. Instead, he remained here and became involved in the Chicago area’s Muslim community and with Palestinian advocacy groups here. He earned a master’s degree from DePaul University and a doctorate from the University of Illinois-Chicago. In 1998, he founded the United Muslim Americans Association, a Muslim voter registration organization based in Palos Hills.
He married Sima Srouri, a fellow Jordanian, and the couple had three sons, all born in America. After Samirah was denied re-entry into the country, Srouri and the three boys left Orland Park and joined Samirah in Jordan as his legal case dragged on. The family lived first with Samirah’s parents, and later moved into their own home.
“We went through a lot of difficulty with family, with work, with the larger society, with accepting what happened,” Samirah said from Jordan in a telephone interview with Patch.com. “I tried my best to improve my situation, but not a day went by that I did not have some connection to the United States.
“Always I had hope that I would win my case and would be able to come back.”
Samirah became a professor of political science at the University of Jordan, and then a director at the Middle East Studies Center, a Jordanian think tank that runs conferences and symposia on politics and economics of the region. His three children attended Jordanian schools and two — Ibraheem, now 20, and 18-year-old Khaled — returned to the United States for college.
His youngest son, Omar, who was 3 when he left Orland Park, can’t wait to grow up and join his older brothers in America.
“They see what happened to us as a temporary period,” Samirah said. “They were born in America. It’s their country. They feel an attachment there, and we told them, ‘It’s your country, you could go there.'”
Prior to his exclusion from the country in January 2003, Samirah was applying for a green card through his wife’s employment as a schoolteacher. His children were all-American youngsters, watching cartoons and roughhousing after school in the yard behind the family’s ranch house.
The Climate After 9/11
The Bridgeview mosque they attended was conservative and traditional, which attracted attention over the years from those scrutinizing Islam’s influence in America, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But it had never been seriously targeted until after Sept. 11, 2001.
Just days after 9/11, a mob of angry people marched on the Bridgeview mosque, carrying American flags and shouting anti-Arab slurs. Muslim women who wore veils or headscarves were cautioned to stay inside while large “pro-America” demonstrations took over Harlem Avenue. After those rallies died down, Muslims and those who appeared Muslim suffered attacks on storefronts and homes.
Muslim charities were shuttered and investigated, federal agents froze assets, seized donor records and accused the organizations of funneling money to Hamas.
The U.S. Attorney’s office prosecuted several south suburban men suspected of raising money and support for terrorists, including Enaam Arnaout of Justice and Mohammed Salah of Bridgeview. Arnaout, who ran Palos Hills-based Benevolence International Foundation, was convicted in 2003 on several charges, but not the most serious. Salah was acquitted on all charges relating to terrorism in 2006, but convicted of lying about his association with Hamas.
Other local Muslims simply fell under suspicion.
Samirah believed then, as he does now, that the many good Muslims who live in America were being defamed by the terrorists who committed their crimes in the name of religion. American government leaders were being misled, he said, into thinking the Muslim world was one monolithic enemy.
“Many of the government’s policies are now being reconsidered, and they are more willing to open a direct channel with people of the region,” he said. “I believe there is now a new approach for the American government to be open to the Arab people, and people like me can be of use to them.”
‘I Believed … in America’
Samirah’s legal battle hinged on whether the government had the right to exclude him from the country without a hearing. Flessner argued that if Samirah truly was a risk to the United States, he could be arrested and tried for the crimes he had committed. A federal judge initially agreed with him, and ordered Samirah returned to the United States, saying his treatment was “demeaning to this country.”
Government appeals, and then counter-appeals, stretched the process out for eight years, but Samirah did not want to give up.
“I believed in the justice system in America,” he said. “It takes a long time but it corrects its mistakes, and I had the belief that I would win at the end. It was a matter of time.”
Finally, in December 2010, a federal court ordered the government to follow its own immigration regulations. Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner wrote in his opinion that officials could not “play games” with immigrants by waiting until they were out of the country and then not allowing them to return.
Posner dismissed the security risk claim outright.
“No one has told us what kind of ‘security risk’ the plaintiff is,” Posner wrote. “The government points to no facts or reasoning that might support the immigration service’s refusal to allow him to return to the United States. No evidence is mentioned that might connect him to [Palestinian terrorist group] Hamas. There is just the cryptic statement by the government’s lawyer at oral argument — a statement redolent of guilt by association — that maybe the plaintiff ‘needs better friends.’
“What he really needed was a better travel agent …”
Flessner said in the eight years of legal proceedings, which included an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, no government official ever presented any evidence that Samirah was a risk of any kind. Not even behind closed doors, he said, for the judge’s ears only.
“They never, not once, produced a single sentence that justifies this designation that he was a security risk,” Flessner said. “There exists in the law a specific exclusion provision for terrorists in this kind of proceeding, and they didn’t use that.
“All they would have had to say was ‘Judge, he’s a terrorist,’ and we would have been done.”
A Department of Justice spokesman did not return a phone inquiry for comment.
Samirah Hopes to Teach in U.S.
Flessner said he and government officials were negotiating the terms of Samirah’s return, and expected an agreement to be reached by the end of the year. Samirah’s legal status prior to his exile was that of an applicant for a green card, dependent on his wife’s employment as he was self-employed.
Should he return to the United States, he hopes to return to that status, and work as a professor of political science here, using his case as a teaching tool for other Muslims — and for the American government.
“This should be a lesson for the government not to do this for any other immigrant,” he said. “And to the Muslim community, it should show them that the justice system will work and they should not be ashamed or afraid to defend their rights.”
He’s partial to returning to Chicago, Samirah said, but his sons’ schools are on the East and West coasts, and the most important thing is to bring the family together again, somewhere in America.
“I want to return to live peacefully,” he said. “Not to be always struggling like this. My children are grown. I want to have some time with them, to live like any other person.”