Controversial Imam Mohammad Qatanani will appear in a U.S. court today to fight being deported for lying on his green card application. The case centers around the fact that Qatanani did not disclose that he was convicted by Israel for being a member of Hamas, designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S.
Qatanani came to the U.S. on a religious work visa in 1996. The Department of Homeland Security’s deportation proceedings against Qatanani began in 2006. Eight years ago, an immigration judge decided not to deport him, a decision the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appealed.
Qatanani argues that he was never convicted by the Israelis after being detained by them for three months in 1993. He admits to having been a member of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, but says he left it in 1991 because he got too busy. He came to the U.S. to lead the Islamic Center of Passaic County alongside Mohammed el-Mezain, who was one of the founders of the institution in 1989.
In addition, the DHS says that Qatanani’s brother-in-law, Mahmud al-Shuli, was a Hamas militant in the West Bank. Qatanani sent thousands of dollars to the West Bank in cash and the DHS described his explanation as to where the money went as “highly dubious.”
A July, 24 2008 report by the N.J. Office of Homeland Security about the Hamas networks in the state named only one person: Imam Qatanani.
The credibility of the Israeli case against him is what Qatanani’s team is taking aim at. The immigration judge ruled in his favor, determining that the Israeli evidence was weak. The Board of Immigration Appeals then overturned that decision.
The DHS noted that three documents provided by the Israelis have been authenticated: A letter from the Israeli liaison, a verdict in Israel and indictment from the military court. These documents confirm that Qatanani was convicted, the DHS argues. Qatanani “does not claim he was forced into making a confession” and admits that there was a trial process during his detention.
Qatanani claims to be a promoter of interfaith relations and has been praised many times by Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie for his interfaith work. Yet consider this excerpt from a June 2007 sermon he delivered about Christians and Jews, translated by the Investigative Project on Terrorism:
“…the hypocrites and those who have disbelieved, from the followers of Jesus, peace and blessing be upon him, have disbelieved after the table came down, and the people of Pharaoh will be swiftly punished as well, and they’ll be amongst the hypocrites. And Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, says about the hypocrites, the hypocrites are in the lower pits of hellfire.”
Although Christie claims that his relationship with Qantanani was only in the context of the imam’s interfaith work immediately following 9/11 when Christie was New Jersey’s attorney general, Christie praised Qatanani in 2008 while his deportation trial was in process and the imam’s links to Hamas were known. Their relationship continued after Christie became governor, when Christie included him on the attorney general’s Muslim outreach committee until at least September 2013.
Qatanani’s case is, unfortunately, reminiscent to a number of other immigrants who conveniently left off important information in their immigration papers. Another ongoing case is that of Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian woman convicted in 1970 in Israel of being involved in fatal terrorist bus bombings.
Odeh spent 10 years in jail before she was released in a prisoner exchange in 1980. She came to the U.S. and served as the associate director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago. In 2014, she was convicted in the U.S. in 2014 for concealing her past and illegally obtaining U.S. citizenship. After claiming that she forgot about her convictions and imprisonment due to post traumatic stress disorder, her case is now pending in the courts.
American immigration authorities must be instructed not to rely on simply the statements of immigrants alone but must use tools provided by U.S. allies. The challenge of the Trump administration amidst the Syrian refugee crisis will be to see that they do so.
Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org