Breakfast with the Feds

Around 6 a.m. on the morning of Aug. 5, Salim Yusef was jolted awake to pounding at the front door. “I heard voices saying, –˜Come on, open up!'” said Yusef, a 22-year-old permanent U.S. resident of Palestinian origin. He had been asleep on the living room sofa in the south suburban home he shares with his brother and sister-in-law.

It was the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. They had come to arrest him. And they did so without a warrant, said Yusef, who asked that his real name not be used.

He was unable to produce his immigration papers. Yusef said they were with his attorney pending an application for a new employment card.

Yusef said agents led him in his slippers and pajamas to a van, handcuffed him and drove him to an immigration processing facility in Broadview, more than 30 minutes away.

He remembers this advice from an agent riding in the front seat: “If I hear you speaking any language besides English, you will regret the day you were born.”

Yusef laughs warily about it now. He calls it his “breakfast meeting” with federal agents. But, on that morning, it was anything but funny. “You know when you’re so afraid, you’re like a deer caught in headlights? That is exactly how I felt,” he said.

Yusef missed a scheduled appointment with a military recruiter that day. Instead, he found himself in a large conference room with computer stations staffed by federal immigration agents. He wondered if he would get the chance to defend the United States–”or be asked to leave it.

As the morning wore on, the room filled with other Arab immigrants, Yusef said. By the time he left, he counted 16 in all, most of whom spoke English poorly or not at all, and were not provided a translator, Yusef said.

One by one, they were summoned to a computer station for questioning, and Yusef said he heard agents tell several of them they would be deported.

But, when it was his turn, Yusef explained that his father was a U.S. citizen and that he had plans to join the military. Officials located his immigration file and confirmed his story, Yusef said.

It seemed the whole thing was a mistake. At around 1:30 p.m., Yusef said he was escorted out of the building. He called a taxi and paid the $32 fare to get home.

Marilu Cabrera, an INS spokeswoman, would not confirm details about the Aug. 5 incident but conceded that, since Sept. 11, 2001, her agency has been “looking more closely at nationals from countries that support terrorism,” a policy that flows directly from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

“The war on terrorism is our number one priority,” she said. “We also understand that there are a lot of people from those nationalities who are not involved in terrorism.”

Even though Cabrera said her agency does not make random arrests, Yusef still wonders why he was chosen: “Why me? I have no idea. I guess some things are meant to happen, to put you in another person’s shoes, to show you another side.”

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