From wedding bells to jail cells

A love story with a very unhappy ending.

ONE DAY, Jacqueline Thompson is planning her marriage to Fuad Hassan Ismail. The next day, Ismail vanishes. Days later, he turns up on the run in war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia. "I'm devastated," says the 38-year-old divorced mother of three. She met Ismail at a "clean and sober" Christmas party in Seattle three years ago and had been with him ever since. She last talked to him three weeks ago on the phone from Mogadishu. "He can't return to the U.S. I may never see him again," Thompson said last week. "Now I'm not even sure he's alive."

A U.S. resident for 18 years, Ismail knew he was subject to possible deportation as a "criminal alien" for a drug violation that occurred in 1994. And the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) called his Feb. 11 deportation routine. But it was so sudden and irrational, say local Somalis and supporters, that it must have been related to the post-Sept. 11 federal roundups, in which countless noncitizens have been quietly detained and/or deported.

"It has to be an overreaction," says Samuel Southard of the Salvation Army in Seattle, for whom Ismail worked as the manager of a drug/alcohol recovery center. "Nothing else makes sense. He was no threat." Businessman Madhy Maaweel, producer of a Seattle public-access show on Somalian community issues, says Ismail is among at least 40 Somalian men and women who have been recently deported from the U.S. "These people were not charged with anything [that could justify their deportation]," says Maaweel. "Some were professionals making $70,000."

Ismail had worked hard at two jobs to save enough money to buy them a home, says his fianc饬 Thompson. "He followed all the INS rules and procedures; he checked in as requested, he cleaned up his record, and was living just a normal life. I just can't believe the INS did this."

On the other hand, this is the government agency that last week issued student visas to two of the terrorists who died in the World Trade Center attack six months ago (an INS spokesperson blamed a paperwork foul-up).

The White House-backed postattack roundups have drawn constant fire from congressional critics and resulted in some high-level staff reassignments, but the Bush administration and the INS remain unrepentant. The INS has a record of similar abuses over the years, most recently detailed in an investigative series by The Oregonian. The Portland newspaper cited repeated instances of ongoing corruption, ineptitude, and racism, including the case of a 15-year-old Chinese girl locked up with violent offenders for eight months even though she had the right to walk free.

The INS's fellow federal agency, the U.S. Customs Service, has also taken its lumps for post-Sept. 11 tactics. Customs agents led the raid on Somali businesses in Seattle last fall, targeting a wire transfer agency in Columbia City that was allegedly linked to the Osama bin Laden terror network. Not content with gathering evidence at just the transfer agency, federal officers indiscriminately hauled away goods and furniture—right down to the last roll of toilet paper—from other, law-abiding Somali businesses in the same building.

Though some items were belatedly returned, most of the merchandise belonging to minimart owner Abdi Nur and gift-store owner Abdi Farah was lost or damaged. The men have filed claims with the U.S. for a total of $320,000 in losses.

"They tell me it will take at least a year for them to do anything," said Nur, 33, who was behind the counter of his restocked store last week. He and others still fear the government's power. "They just come and get you, like they got my store," Nur said. Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, says the raids were made "without any reason to believe [Nur and Farah] had engaged in wrongdoing." Angry Seattle community activist Liz Burbank describes the government's roundup tactics as "witch hunts . . . no charges, no evidence, no trials—resulting in secret disappearances."

She suspects Fuad Ismail has become one of those disappearances. Jacqueline Thompson is convinced of it.

"When they arrested him, Fuad went with them with no problem," his fianc饠says. "He called me, just letting me know he may be deported, although he wasn't worried. They had 30 to 90 days to do that, he said, so he could fight it like he did before. The next day, Sunday, I went to see him at the INS jail. He said don't worry, it will just be a matter of time and he'd be released.

"Then one day he is gone. They must have labeled him a terrorist, but he has done nothing in his life like that."

The Salvation Army's Southard says he has wired Ismail more than $1,000 for living expenses and to get a temporary visa to the United Arab Emirates and catch a ride out of Mogadishu. (Ismail, who was born in Yemen to Somali parents, once lived in Somalia for a brief time but had never been in warlord-controlled Mogadishu.) Southard is not sure what else he can do now, he says, "except pray."

Thompson recalls that when she last talked to Ismail on the phone, she told him, "'I guess you can never come back.' He didn't know he couldn't return until I told him. We were both crying. I asked the INS if I go there and marry him, could he come back as my husband? And they said no, he can't return period.

"He was still in Mogadishu. He was hoping to get to Kenya. He was staying at a bad hotel and then at someone's home. He said—I remember his words—'I am running for my life.'"

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