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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. Palestinian Activist Convicted of Immigration Fraud; Supporters Cry Foul

    Earlier this week, Rasmea Odeh, the associate director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago, was convicted of one count of Unlawful Procurement of Naturalization. She faces up to 10 years in prison, a fine, and possible deportation from the United States.



    Convincing Ms. Odeh's supporters proved easier than convincing a jury.

    Ms. Odeh is a Palestinian who was convicted in Israel in 1970 for involvement in two bombings, one of which killed two university students in a supermarket. She was sentenced to life in prison, but she was freed in 1979 as part of a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Ms. Odeh maintains that she is innocent of the crime, and that she was coerced into confessing under torture by the Israeli authorities.


    In the mid-1990s, she immigrated from Jordan to the United States, and in 2004, she became a U.S. citizen. By all accounts, she did well in her adopted country:


    Rasmea Odeh has been with the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) since 2004 and is the Associate Director and Community Adult Women Organizer.... She has worked as a teacher and then a lawyer after she completed her law degree. She gained valuable community experience through her work and service in various associations including women’s and workers’ unions, family and domestic violence groups, human right centers and the Red Cross. She created a successful community writing group at the AAAN to encourage women to tell their colorful stories and experiences while living in the United States in a creative and exciting way.

    Ms. Odeh's current troubles stem from her failure to report her conviction and sentence on her immigration and naturalization forms. Those forms ask such questions as "Have you ever been arrested, cited, or detained by any law enforcement officer... for any reason?" and "Have you ever been charged with committing, attempting to commit, or assisting in committing a crime or offense?" (emphasis in original). In response to these questions, Ms. Odeh answered "no."


    In a sense, this is an open-and-shut case. Whether or not Ms. Odeh is guilty of the underlying crime (the bombing), she certainly provided false information on the immigration forms. But of course, nothing connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can ever be simple, and Ms. Odeh's case is no exception.


    The first complicating factor is Ms. Odeh's alleged torture by Israel. This became relevant because the defense hoped to prove that Ms. Odeh did not "knowingly" lie on the immigration forms; rather, her "post-traumatic stress disorder" somehow caused her to answer the questions incorrectly. The judge disallowed this defense in a pre-trial order, and it will no doubt be one of the claims raised on appeal. To me, the PTSD defense is simply not believable. Many of my clients are torture victims and possibly suffer from PTSD, but I've never seen a case where the client isn't able to answer a yes-or-no question about whether she was arrested. Maybe she does not want to talk about the arrest, but she knows it happened and can complete the form properly. Even if the judge had allowed this defense, I doubt that the jury would have accepted it.


    Deprived of her PTSD defense, Ms. Odeh argued that she misunderstood the questions related to her criminal convictions. She said that she thought the questions were about her time in the U.S., and that she had nothing to hide and did not need to lie. She apparently testified about her alleged torture at the United Nations in 1979, and as her lead attorney said, “It was well known that she was convicted, and traded [in a prisoner exchange]. The U.S. Embassy knew it, the State Department knew it, and Immigration should have known it.” Neither of these points is very convincing. First, Ms. Odeh clearly had a very good reason to lie--if the U.S. government knew about her conviction on terrorism charges, she would likely have been denied a visa and citizenship. Second, her attorney's claim that she did not have to answer the questions truthfully since the U.S. government was already aware of her conviction is simply bizarre (as if some USCIS bureaucrat in 2004 would magically be aware of Ms. Odeh's testimony before the UN in 1979).


    The most (and to me, only) convincing argument made by Ms. Odeh is that her prosecution stems from an improper government investigation that targeted Palestinian activists and others who were exercising their First Amendment rights. Ms. Odeh filed an unsuccessful motion to dismiss relying on this theory. The investigation in question was brought against 23 anti-war and Palestinian activists, and after 3+ years, has not resulted in any indictments. During the course of the investigation, the government of Israel turned over documents to the United States. It is these documents that purportedly led to the discovery of Ms. Odeh's imprisonment (and hence the discovery that she lied on her immigration forms). The failure of the underlying investigation to reach any conclusion suggests that it might have been improper and, if so, perhaps the discovery related to Ms. Odeh was unlawful (fruit of the poison tree and all that). I suppose we will see what comes of this argument on appeal. But of course, even if Ms. Odeh is correct about the improper investigation, and even if she ultimately wins with this issue on appeal, that does not change the fact that she lied on her forms.


    Finally, it is interesting to see how people’s views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affect their views of Ms. Odeh’s case. To her supporters, this case is about Israeli torture of Palestinians. They seem to accept Ms. Odeh’s explanation that she is innocent, that she was tortured into confessing, that any mistakes on the form were either a misunderstanding or a result of her PTSD, and that the whole case is an effort by the U.S. government to undermine the Palestinian cause.


    While I largely sympathize with the Palestinian side, I find Ms. Odeh's explanations hard to accept. To me—and apparently to the jury—the case is much simpler than all that. The question is, Did Ms. Odeh knowingly lie on her immigration and naturalization forms? The jury found that she did. Despite all the craziness surrounding her case, and whether she is a victim or a villain, the simplest and most likely explanation here is that Ms. Odeh lied about her imprisonment in order to obtain an immigration benefit from the United States. If so, she received the conviction she deserved.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
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