Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 23TS1001 (posted Dec. 6, 2001)"
Testimony of Ali Al-Maqtari Before the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate
December 4, 2001
Senators, Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you very much for letting me testify before your committee today. My name is Ali Al-Maqtari, and I want to tell you the story of how I was jailed by the INS for almost eight weeks. Thanks to the fairness of your immigration court and appeal system, and the hard work of my wife, Tiffinay, and my attorneys, my story has a good ending. However, even though I did nothing wrong, and cooperated with the INS, FBI, and Army in every way possible, I spent many weeks in harsh jail conditions, cut off from my wife, and my wife had to give up her army career. I tell you my story in the hope that it will help other innocent people avoid the problems that I had.
I came to the United States in June 2000 for a long visit. I had just spent a year in France where I had completed a diploma as a teacher of French. Before going to France, I had worked as a French teacher at the Kuwait High School in Sana'a, Yemen for several years. I graduated from Sana'a University with a degree in French in June 1997.
I have an uncle, who is a U.S. citizen, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his family. Visiting my uncle and his family was my first goal on my trip, but I also wanted to see what the United States was like and improve my English. I also hoped that perhaps I would have an opportunity to student teach or teach French. Gaining this experience in the United States would be something that would really help my career as a teacher in Yemen, because American education is highly-respected in my country.
I spent about a month in New York, visiting my Uncle's family and sightseeing. I liked it very much. My uncle has a close friend - so close to our family that I call him "uncle" too, even though he is not actually a member of our family, who lives in New Haven Connecticut. My uncle urged me strongly to visit him. I did, and the visit worked out very well. My "uncle" owned a small market and had a second apartment where several young men lived. It was easy for me to stay there without inconveniencing him or his family. I was able to attend English classes at a local adult education center, and I helped out at the market. Although I was not paid a salary, my "uncle" gave me money for my expenses, and I bought a computer that a customer of the store was selling. I discovered the internet, and this helped improve both my English and French. I was really enjoying my visit, and I wanted to extend it. A friendly woman, who was a mentor to many of the students at the adult education center, helped me by filling out the INS application to ask for a longer visit, and I sent it in to the INS in Vermont.
In my first few months in New Haven, I also made contacts about student teaching or teaching French. I visited Kay Hill, the language coordinator of the New Haven Public Schools several times. She invited me to visit several schools in New Haven and gave me advice about taking the TOEFL test and studying here. Later on, in May or June 2001 I had my degrees evaluated and applied for admission to a language teaching program at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, which accepted me.
However, the most important thing which happened to me in the United States, is that I met my wife, Tiffinay. We first met in a French language internet chat room in March or April 2000. Tiffinay also speaks French well. Like me, she has studied in France. We met only once in the chat room. We traded email addresses and began to exchange emails. Then we spoke by telephone.
Because we speak French, we were able to communicate well. My wife had previously become a Muslim, and this was something else that we shared and was important to us. It continues to be now, as we share the holy month of Ramadan. In May 2001, Tiffinay invited me to visit her in North Carolina. I stayed with her and her parents, and invited her to visit me in Connecticut. She did this very quickly, and this showed me that her intentions were serious. We decided to get married and were married in Hamden, CT on June 1, 2001. Neither of us is in favor of extended social dating or living together before marriage. We wanted to marry and begin our life together. This is common for Muslims. My own parents met only a day before their wedding and have been happy for many years.
After our marriage, Tiffinay moved to New Haven, and we rented our own apartment. At first, we thought that both of us would get jobs in New Haven, and Tiffinay would transfer from the North Carolina National Guard to the one in Connecticut. (I didn't really know exactly what the National Guard was. Tiffinay explained to me that it was like the part-time army.) We went to an attorney to begin work on a marriage application to allow me to stay here. She told us to write to the INS to withdraw my request to extend my tourist visit, because I now planned to live here, not just to visit. We did this in early July.
Because of delays with transferring Tiffinay's National Guard membership from North Carolina to Connecticut, she thought that it would be best if she enrolled in the full-time army. I agreed. This would mean living in another part of the country further away from my uncle and his family, but we are young, and I wanted to respect Tiffinay's decision. In August, we learned that Tiffinay would be in the army at Fort Campbell, Kentucky for a long time, for up to three years, starting in the middle of September, and we made plans to move there. We also filed our marriage application with the INS.
On September 12, the local Army recruiting office called Tiffinay to let her know that the recruiting center in Springfield, Massachusetts where she was to pick up her final orders was closed, but that she should go there on September 13 to pick up her orders. When we went there, a sergeant at the recruiting center spoke to each of us separately about Tiffinay not wearing a hejab - the head scarf that many Muslim women wear. . He was not unfriendly to either of us. We explained to him that Tiffinay would be wearing her uniform when she got to base, and soon after, we left. We did not think that anything was wrong, and we began the three day drive to Fort Campbell. We had ended our lease in New Haven, and we had all of our things packed in Tiffinay's car.
When we arrived at Fort Campbell on September 15, Tiffany's car was stopped as soon as we got to the gate. We were separated and taken by officers to separate cars, and Tiffinay's car was emptied and searched three or four times by bomb-sniffing dogs.
We were then taken to a building like a police station and separately interrogated by INS, Army, and FBI investigators - nine of them, I think - for more than twelve hours. Although we were separated, we had the same thought: to cooperate and answer all the questions they put to us. We did this although the questioning was very harsh. An INS agent screamed at me that I was illegal and could be deported immediately and he refused to listen to me when I told him about my applications. He said I was lying, that there was nothing about me in the computer, and that I would be deported. An FBI investigator, Bill Frank, also told me that the Springfield, Massachusetts recruiting center where Tiffinay had received her orders had been blown up by terrorists twenty minutes after we left it. (He told Tiffinay that there had been a bomb alert and that they found suspicious materials after we left.) They told her that we were suspicious because she was wearing a hejab and we had been speaking in a foreign language. French was the only language other than English that we had spoken together, but it must have made them nervous. The investigators said many, many times that our marriage was fake, and that Tiffinay must be married to me because I was abusing her. These accusations were totally false and very painful for me. They also made many negative remarks about Islam, things like Islam being the religion of beating and mistreating women. One acted out a fist hitting his hand, another said my wife had written a letter saying that I beat her, which I knew was false, and another insisted he would beat me all the way to my country because I mistreated my wife.
They asked us about the box cutters that we had among our things, and we explained how I had used mine in the store, and Tiffinay had used hers when she worked in the shipping department of a nursery. The interrogators were so angry and wild in their accusations that they made me very frightened for what might happen to me. I learned later that Tiffinay was asked very similar questions. They also asked her if I spent large amounts of time on the internet and/or sent emails to terrorists. The interrogators also had the letters that I had brought with me from my a family, and from a friend in Yemen who is a doctor. These letters were in Arabic. They had a translator review them. He would read passages from the letters, and Bill Frank from the FBI insisted that the letters from my friend, the doctor, showed that she was my terrorist controller and that I was somehow involved with terrorists from Russia. This was silly and completely false, and I think they knew it, but at the same time it made me frightened because it seemed like they intended to accuse me of being involved with all the enemies of the United States.
After this long interrogation, at about 4:00 am, they let us speak to each other in a room for a few minutes while they waited outside. We would not be alone again until November 8.
Tiffinay was taken to a barracks where she was kept on a separate floor apart from the other women soldiers. From that time through Wednesday of the following week, she had three guards with her at all times, day and night, no matter what she did: even bathing and sleeping. All of these soldiers but one were men. After that she was not so mistreated. She was able to live with the other women, and she started to make friends with people. Still, she learned many negative things: that her photo had been distributed to the gates of the base before we arrived, that handmade posters with her photo were circulated around the base, and that many people had heard local television news broadcasts that said that I was a spy at Fort Campbell.
I was taken to a hotel near the base, where I spent the weekend. People watched me from the parking lot.
On Monday, September 18, both of us were taken were taken to the FBI office in Nashville, Tennessee, where they gave us polygraph tests. Although many of the questions were very strange (Have you ever embarrassed your family? Have you ever lied?…) we both answered them the best that we could. I was given deportation papers charging me with overstaying my visa. In what seemed like a positive thing, both the INS agent and Mr. Frank from the FBI said that they knew that I had told the truth and that I would probably be released the next day. I learned later that Tiffany had been told the same thing by army people, and the INS had given similar news to Attorney Maria Labaredas, who works with Attorney Boyle and who faxed copies of all my immigration papers to the INS. It was strange that these men, who had been wild and full of anger on Saturday, were now very calm.
However, I was not released. Army people told Tiffinay that someone in the FBI had ordered that I not be released. I really do not know what happened. I was never spoken to again by the FBI, Army or INS, but I spent more than seven weeks in jail.
At the jail near Nashville where I spent my first week in detention, one guard was very difficult. He kept saying that I was a terrorist and asking if I knew bin Laden. Then I was transferred to a jail in Mason, Tennessee, near Memphis. For my first two weeks there I was put with normal inmates, and the staff and other inmates treated me normally. However, it was upsetting to be in jail. I had never been arrested or had any kind of problem with the police anywhere. I did not want to be in jail, and was concerned that I had not been released quickly, once the INS and FBI had confirmed that I had told them the truth. I was also unable to speak to my wife, and was worried about her.
I learned later that my wife was also very upset and concerned about what was happening to me. She was afraid that I would still be in jail when she was sent overseas. Also, she was concerned that some people seemed to distrust her because she was my wife and that many people at Fort Campbell seemed to believe the local television reports about me being a spy. When her officers suggested to her that she should request a discharge because of these problems, she agreed. She was granted an honorable discharge on Friday morning, September 28, and drove to the prison to visit me that afternoon.
Things were harder for me after that. The prison moved me to a segregated unit with very serious criminals. They said that it was for my protection, but it made me feel very unsafe. The other prisoners had committed very serious crimes, and a guard there accused me of being a terrorist. He would whisper to these bad criminals, and they would threaten me and taunt me. One, who said that he had murdered someone and spent twenty-five years in jail threatened me in the shower. Others told me that I should confess, that I would never leave the jail, and things like that. Because I was in the segregated unit, I could only make one phone call a week. One of my attorneys, Michael Boyle, visited me twice and could call me before I had hearings. However, things were very frightening and very difficult. What was happening to me was totally different than how I thought America worked. As things seemed to get worse and worse, I became fearful of what would happen to me.
My first bond hearing, early in October, was difficult. Tiffinay and I answered questions for a long time, and the INS presented no evidence. Still, the Judge set a very high bond, $50,000. The INS said that they would immediately try to stop even this high bond from taking effect, and they did. It was very hard to wait while the appeals board considered the case. My next bond hearings were also disappointing, as the Judge said that he was giving the INS a "last chance" to bring in more evidence. I was glad that he said he was thinking of a lower bond, but I was concerned that the INS seemed to get so many chances even when they had told me that Monday in Nashville that they knew that I had told the truth.
My lawyers assured me that things would get better for me, that the Judge and the appeals board judges had to be very careful because of what happened on September 11, and would be very generous to the INS at first, but that they would not let the INS hold me for months without having any evidence.
I am very grateful that in the end this is what happened. I am grateful that the appeals court judges were willing to make a decision based on the facts, not on fear. And I am grateful that the INS was worried that the Immigration Judge in Memphis would give me a low bond and decided to settle my case. Still, I spent almost eight weeks in jail, and my wife lost her army career because people were angry and nervous and I am from Yemen. My experience with the INS was very bad. They lied to me and locked me in jail for eight weeks with no evidence against me. I told them all there is to know about my life, my lawyer gave them many documents from Yemen and France to prove the truth of what I said, and my wife testified all about our marriage. I should not have been held for weeks. In the end, we had to agree to the $10,000 bond that the INS offered because there is a new rule that could have let the INS keep me for many more weeks if the Judge had given me a lower bond than the INS wanted. Because Tiffinay had saved enough money to pay the bond, this was not a problem for me, but I am worried that there will be many other people whose wives do not have $10,000.
I hope you will do whatever you can to try and fix these problems. I have been back together with my wife for almost a month, and our lives are healing, but I hope that you will protect other innocent people from the INS.