Homeland security loses local leader

Joel Helfrich

He is a tireless worker for human rights in Minnesota, often simultaneously championing the efforts of many causes on this campus and in the community at large. On one day you might see him speak in front of a crowd at the University, move to the co-op or a local cafe to get a feel for the beat of the people on the street and then head off to St. Paul to address an antiwar rally. He does not always make it on time to public speaking engagements, however. I once saw him arrive 45 minutes late to a panel presentation.

But when he shows up, his public speeches are brilliant. He once stunned a crowd gathered in the entryway of Northrop Auditorium to celebrate diversity – the same day the University announced its intentions to buy into the telescope project on Mount Graham. He caught both the Associate Vice Provost Sally McKee and Provost Christine Maziar completely off-guard with his pointed comments about the extent to which the University gives lip service to multiculturalism while it simultaneously cuts off dialogue with its so-called multicultural communities.

On that day, he clearly articulated his disgust for the University’s efforts to sideline important dialogue that should have taken place regarding that sad point in our university’s past. What was so impressive was that he did not have to speak out about Mount Graham. He could have spoken out about Somali communities in the Twin Cities or Somali students at the University – topics he knows a great deal about. After all, he was there to talk briefly about Somali student involvement on campus, but chose to talk about something that disturbed him morally and ethically.

Omar Jamal, about whom I write, is the executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. This Friday the Somali community will release an official statement regarding Jamal at a press conference and community gathering. As many people know – both locally and nationally – Jamal was arrested and detained by none other than the Department of Homeland Security on March 31. Our local Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services office apparently initiated their investigation a little more than a year ago, when the bureau was called the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The local agency is charging Jamal with six felony counts that could result in a prison sentence of 30 years and deportation. He was released on bail late last week.

Even if Jamal truly did what the federal authorities say he did, we should note he has done more for his people in the United States – in Lewiston, Maine, in Seattle, in Ohio, and throughout Minnesota – than anybody I know. The U.S. government is about to make a martyr out of him. But that will only fuel the people who are lined up in their opposition to the current administration, particularly Attorney General John Ashcroft and the spurious ways in which he reads U.S. laws.

Richard Breitman, an immigration attorney who volunteered to represent Jamal, said last Thursday at the bail hearing: “In 20 years, I have never seen anybody prosecuted criminally for misrepresentations in any asylum case.” Statements such as this should indeed make us consider the real reasons why the government is pursuing this case.

Jamal, somewhat naively, believes justice will be served and that he will be vindicated. If, at the end of the day, he is free to go, the government can say, “See, our system works.” Supporters of Omar Jamal – indeed, supporters of human and civil rights – would rather fight that nonsense than the release of yet another political prisoner.

Again, what worries so many people here in Minnesota, including the 12 Minneapolis City Council members who passed a resolution Friday opposing parts of the USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act, is the newness of Jamal’s case.

Phil Steger, director of Friends for a Non-Violent World, noted, “This is the chilling reality. Up until a year ago, for possible errors on an asylum application, an immigrant would be invited to INS in order to clear up the allegations and decide what to do next. What is unusual, and particularly chilling, is that in Jamal’s case, this precedent and protocol is being bypassed and he has been sent into immediate deportation proceedings, and is being charged with felonies. This is a totally new development in the government’s treatment of immigrants.”

And the media are also playing into the hands of the government’s allegations. One reporter from WCCO Channel 4 asked Steger (on camera), “What are you and all these people doing here?” When Steger answered, “Supporting Jamal for his service to our state and to civil and human rights in Minnesota,” the reporter retorted, “Yeah, but the government is saying that he frauded the American people by lying on his application.” Steger urges concerned citizens to call television stations and their congressional leaders, as well as write to the newspapers. As Steger points out, “We should all respond to these kind of claims and insinuations in some way like the following: that these are allegations that have not been proven, that they stem from five years ago, and that in the meantime, Jamal has tirelessly and selflessly (if at times idiosyncratically) defended the human and civil rights of all Minnesotans, immigrant and citizen alike.”

Omar Jamal’s case is representative of the times in which we live and is testimony to the fact that we should be worried about what might happen to friends and colleagues who speak out against injustice. Steger said it best: “Alleged inaccuracies on his application, which have not been proven, have turned into deportation proceedings and felony criminal charges … . This is unprecedented and chilling for people concerned about civil and human rights.” Omar Jamal should be allowed to continue the work he has been doing, not only for Somali people, but for all citizens of the United States. Right now, he needs the help of all Minnesotans.

Joel T. Helfrich’s columns usually appear alternate Tuesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]