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Detention of Refugee Shows Need for Policy Change

Published in: Newsweek

A federal judge in California ruled on April 21 that the Iraqi extradition case against Omar Ameen, a resettled refugee in the U.S., was based on an alleged series of events that is "simply not plausible." The evidence the government presented, Judge Edmund Brennan wrote, not only didn't prove but in fact had "obliterated" the probable cause that was needed to send Ameen to face what appear to be trumped-up murder charges in Iraq.

But Ameen, who was admitted to the United States as a refugee in 2014 after extensive security vetting by U.S. immigration, law enforcement and intelligence agencies, still can't rejoin his family in Sacramento. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took him into custody and is pursuing a deportation case against him, based on many of the same allegations and witnesses disproven in federal court.

Ameen's detention raises serious concerns that the Biden administration has not acted quickly enough to depoliticize ICE, which the Trump administration weaponized as part of its full-throttled assault on immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Ameen is only one of thousands of people who are still caught up in a system of arbitrary detention and cruel enforcement, seemingly at odds with the Biden administration's priorities and orders.

As a resettled refugee, Ameen and his family are part of the most thoroughly vetted category of people to enter the U.S. Before they traveled to the U.S. in November 2014, they were investigated by an alphabet soup of federal agencies, including the CIANSAFBI, DHS and the Department of Defense in a lengthy process in which any red flag is grounds for rejection. But by 2017, under the administration of former President Donald Trump, the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed the FBI to search for validation for its anti-Muslim animus and the narrative that resettled refugees pose security threats. Ameen ended up in the crosshairs.

In 2018, federal authorities arrested Ameen based on an extradition request from the Iraqi government, which claimed he murdered a police officer in Iraq in June 2014, as an Islamic State (ISIS) operative. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specifically cited Ameen's case to justify slashing the refugee resettlement cap just one month after Ameen's arrest.

A former National Security Council member told The New Yorker journalist Ben Taub that the Trump administration was "so intent upon linking refugees and terrorism that they were willing to put false examples out to the public."

According to Taub's reporting, the U.S. government used an FBI paid informant to drive Iraq's flawed investigation into Ameen, instigating and assisting with drafting the extradition packet, vastly exceeding the role typical for countries receiving extradition requests. Yet the charges against Ameen did not stand up in the face of a mountain of evidence proving what the federal judge called the most salient point in the case: Ameen was in Turkey, not Iraq, on the day of the murder. He had been living in Turkey since he sought asylum there in 2012, fleeing threats to his life in Anbar Province, Iraq.

Though the federal court that considered Ameen's extradition soundly rejected the shoddy government evidence linking Ameen to ISIS, Ameen's attorneys told me that ICE continues to detain Ameen on the same grounds.

The Biden administration should immediately review whether there is any legitimate basis for continuing to detain Ameen, who has roots and a family with four children in Sacramento, or to continue to push for his deportation.

Ameen is not alone, though. Immigrant advocates have repeatedly raised concerns that Biden's ICE is arresting and detaining people who should be free under the administration's own immigration enforcement priorities. The number of people detained in the ICE system has increased from 15,090 in January, the month Biden took office, to 21,519 at the end of May. In order to tackle this abusive practice, the administration should rapidly implement a system to review the case of each person currently held in ICE detention.

These reviews should occur as part of an overarching effort to audit the Trump administration's politicization of the immigration enforcement agencies. Ending the illegitimate effort to deport Ameen should be part of a larger endeavor to build a more trustworthy U.S. immigration system.

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