A war on terror gone awry

An Iraqi immigrant falsely imprisoned speaks volumes about the costs of the war on terror.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a little-publicized lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of an Iraqi immigrant falsely imprisoned by U.S. officials. The story of Abdul Ameer Yousef Habeeb has largely escaped the public’s eye, but it speaks volumes about the real cost of the United States’ ongoing war on terrorism.

Habeeb fled his native country in 2002, gaining refugee status in the U.S. after years of persecution under Saddam Hussein. While traveling by train from Seattle to Washington, D.C., in April 2003, Habeeb was confronted by U.S. Border Patrol agents at a stop in northern Montana. After brief questioning, he was arrested and charged with failing to comply with U.S. requirements that nonimmigrants from certain countries be photographed and fingerprinted. U.S. officials began deportation proceedings within 24 hours, and Habeeb spent the next eight days behind bars.

By all indications, Habeeb’s only crimes that day were his broken English and Arab appearance. Border Patrol officials have cited no reason for initially questioning Habeeb. Their cause for detaining him – his failure to comply with fingerprinting requirements – was false: Political refugees like Habeeb are exempted from the policy.

The case might not be the most egregious example of the war on terrorism trampling the very freedoms it aims to protect, but it does have an ugly irony that should make U.S. officials cringe. Habeeb was imprisoned twice under Saddam and has the scars to prove it. So April 1, 2003, while U.S. troops were advancing toward Baghdad in a campaign to liberate Iraqis from tyranny, zealous Border Patrol agents were stripping Habeeb of his hard-won civil liberties.

It goes without saying Habeeb deserves an apology from the U.S. government and compensation for his shameful treatment. But U.S. officials should not stop there.

Civil liberties advocates have long warned that in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, U.S. efforts to root out the next 19 terrorists risk alienating the hundreds of thousands of lawful immigrants who wish only to live in a democratic society. After they right the wrongs done to Habeeb, U.S. officials should ponder that possibility.