He spoke no English, had no lawyer. An Afghan man’s case offers a glimpse into US immigration court

Hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021. (AP)
Hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 25 September 2023
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He spoke no English, had no lawyer. An Afghan man’s case offers a glimpse into US immigration court

He spoke no English, had no lawyer. An Afghan man’s case offers a glimpse into US immigration court
  • The case reflects an asylum seeker who was ill-equipped to represent himself and clearly didn’t understand what was happening, according to experts who reviewed the transcript

NEW YORK: The Afghan man speaks only Farsi, but he wasn’t worried about representing himself in US immigration court. He believed the details of his asylum claim spoke for themselves.
Mohammad was a university professor, teaching human rights courses in Afghanistan before he fled for the United States. Mohammad is also Hazara, an ethnic minority long persecuted in his country, and he said he was receiving death threats under the Taliban, who reimposed their harsh interpretation of Islam after taking power in 2021.
He crossed the Texas border in April 2022, surrendered to Border Patrol agents and was detained. A year later, a hearing was held via video conference. His words were translated by a court interpreter in another location, and he said he struggled to express himself — including fear for his life since he was injured in a 2016 suicide bombing.
At the conclusion of the nearly three-hour hearing, the judge denied him asylum. Mohammad said he was later shocked to learn that he had waived his right to appeal the decision.
“I feel alone and that the law wasn’t applied,” said Mohammad, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition that only his first name be used, over fears for the safety of his wife and children, who are still in Afghanistan.
Mohammad’s case offers a rare look inside an opaque and overwhelmed immigration court system where hearings are often closed, transcripts are not available to the public and judges are under pressure to move quickly with ample discretion. Amid a major influx of migrants at the border with Mexico, the courts — with a backlog of 2 million cases -– may be the most overwhelmed and least understood link in the system.
AP reviewed a hearing transcript provided by Mona Iman, an attorney with Human Rights First now representing Mohammad. Iman also translated Mohammad’s comments to AP in a phone interview from Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas.
The case reflects an asylum seeker who was ill-equipped to represent himself and clearly didn’t understand what was happening, according to experts who reviewed the transcript. But at least one former judge disagreed and said the ruling was fair.
Now Mohammad’s attorney has won him a new hearing, before a different judge — a rare second chance for asylum cases. Also giving Iman hope is a decision this week by the Biden administration to give temporary legal status to Afghan migrants living in the country for more than a year. Iman believes he qualifies and said he will apply.
But Mohammed has been in detention for about 18 months, and he fears he could remain in custody and still be considered for deportation.
AP sought details and comment from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency didn’t address questions on Mohammad’s case but said noncitizens can pursue all due process and appeals and, once that’s exhausted, judges’ orders must be carried out.
 
For his April 27 hearing, Mohammad submitted photos of his injuries from the 2016 suicide bombing that killed hundreds at a peaceful demonstration of mostly Hazaras. He also gave the court threatening letters from the Taliban and medical documents from treatment for head wounds in 2021. He said militants beat him with sticks as he left the university and shot at him but missed.
In court, the government argued that Mohammad encouraged migration to the US on social media, changed dates and details related to his history, and had relatives in Europe, South America and other places where he could have settled.
In ruling, Judge Allan John-Baptiste said the threats didn’t indicate Mohammad would still be at risk, and that his wife and children hadn’t been harmed since he left.
Mohammad tried to keep arguing his case, but the judge told him the evidentiary period was closed. He asked Mohammad whether he planned to appeal or would waive his right to do so.
Mohammad kept describing his claim, but John-Baptiste reminded him he’d already ruled. Mohammad said if the judge was going to ignore the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, he wouldn’t ask for an appeal. John-Baptiste indicated he had considered it.
“You were not hit by the gunshot or the suicide bomber,” John-Baptiste said. “The harm that you received does not rise to the level of persecution.”
Mohammad continued, explaining how his family lives in hiding, his wife concealing her identity with a burqa.
“OK, are you going to appeal my decision or not?” John-Baptiste ultimately asked.
“No, I don’t,” Mohammad said.
“And we don’t want you to make the decision now that you can’t come back later and say you want to appeal. This is final, OK, sir?” John-Baptiste said.
“Yes. OK, I accept that,” Mohammad said.
He later asked whether he could try to come back legally. The judge started to explain voluntary departure, which would allow him to return in less than a decade, but corrected himself and said Mohammad didn’t qualify.
“I’m sorry about that, but, you know, I’m just going to have to order you removed,” John-Baptiste said. “I wish you the best of luck.”
Mohammad later told AP he couldn’t comprehend what was happening in court. He’d heard from others in detention that he had a month to appeal.
“I didn’t understand in that moment that the right would be taken from me if I said no,” he said.
 
Former immigration judge Jeffrey Chase, who reviewed the transcript, said he was surprised John-Baptiste waived Mohammad’s right to appeal and that the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld that decision. Case law supports granting protection for people who belong to a group long persecuted in their homelands even if an individual cannot prove specific threats, said Chase, an adviser to the appeals board.
But Andrew Arthur, another former immigration judge, said John-Baptiste ruled properly.
“The respondent knew what he was filing, understood all of the questions that were asked of him at the hearing, understood the decision, and freely waived his right to appeal,” Arthur, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for immigration restrictions, said via email.
Chase said the hearing appeared rushed, and he believes the case backlog played a role.
“Immigration judges hear death-penalty cases in traffic-court conditions,” said Chase, quoting a colleague. “This is a perfect example.”
Overall, the 600 immigration judges nationwide denied 63 percent of asylum cases last year, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Individual rates vary wildly, from a Houston judge who denied all 105 asylum requests to a San Francisco one denying only 1 percent of 108 cases.
John-Baptiste, a career prosecutor appointed during the Trump administration’s final months, denied 72 percent of his 114 cases.
Before Mohammad decided to flee, his wife applied for a special immigrant visa, which grants permanent residency to Afghans who worked for the US government or military, along with their families.
But that and other legal pathways can take years. While they waited, Mohammad said, the Taliban came looking for him but instead detained and beat his nephew. Mohammad described making the devastating decision to leave his family, who had no passports.
He opted for a treacherous route through multiple countries to cross the US-Mexico border, which has seen the number of Afghans jump from 300 to 5,000 in a year.
Mohammad said he crossed into Pakistan, flew to Brazil and headed north. He slept on buses and trekked through Panama’s notorious Darien Gap jungle, where he said he saw bodies of migrants who didn’t make it.
Mohammad planned to live with a niece in North Carolina. Now he fears if he’s sent home and his wife gets her visa, they’ll be separated again.
Deportations to Afghanistan are extremely rare, with a handful each year.
Attorney Iman said they’re grateful Mohammad’s case has been reopened, with a hearing scheduled for Oct. 4. She is fighting for his immediate release.
“I have no doubt that his case would have turned out differently had he been represented,” Iman said. “This is exactly the type of vulnerable individual that the US government has promised, has committed to protect, since it withdrew from the country.”
 

 

 


Saudi tourism sees 50% surge in Indian visitors as promotion intensifies

Saudi tourism sees 50% surge in Indian visitors as promotion intensifies
Updated 35 min 26 sec ago
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Saudi tourism sees 50% surge in Indian visitors as promotion intensifies

Saudi tourism sees 50% surge in Indian visitors as promotion intensifies
  • India expected to become Saudi Arabia’s top tourism source market by 2030
  • Promotional strategy bears fruit with Indian tourists seeking out Kingdom’s heritage sites

NEW DELHI: The number of Indians traveling to Saudi Arabia has grown by 50 percent following a series of strategic initiatives in 2023, the Kingdom’s tourism authority said, as it participated in India’s main international travel show over the weekend.

The 2024 edition of the South Asian Travel and Tourism Exchange — Asia’s leading platform for the tourism and hospitality industry — took place in Noida in the Indian capital region on Feb. 22-24.

The Saudi Tourism Authority established a huge pavilion at the venue, promoting the Kingdom’s ancient heritage sites and new tourism destinations.

“This marks Saudi Tourism Authority’s third year participating in one of the most prominent tourism trade shows in South Asia,” Alhasan Al-Dabbagh, STA president for Asia-Pacific markets, told Arab News.

“SATTE has been successful as it gave us the opportunity to strengthen our partnerships, share insights and grow together with our trade partners with one unified goal, which is to bring Saudi to life and make its experiences and packages bookable.”

The Saudi exhibition this year was bigger than in the fair’s previous editions, also reflecting the increasing success of its promotional strategy in India.

“We hosted over 1.5 million Indian inbound travelers in 2023, making a substantial 50 percent increase in visitation from 2022. This surge is attributed to strategic initiatives, including a successful partnership with the Indian Premier League, (and) enhanced air connectivity,” Al-Dabbagh said.

Alhasan Al-Dabbagh, STA president for Asia-Pacific markets, speaks at the South Asian Travel and Tourism Exchange on Feb. 22, 2024. (SATTE)

In February last year, the STA signed a partnership agreement with the IPL — the men’s T20 franchise that is the world’s most-watched cricket league — becoming its official sponsor and tapping into a strong sports fanbase in both countries.

Saudi and Indian airlines have also added new flights in 2023, connecting Indian cities directly to the Kingdom, while immigration procedures have been streamlined with additional visa-processing centers.

“Last year, we opened 10 VFS Tasheel offices across India, with plans to expand into tier-two cities. We launched our first-ever free 96-hour stopover visa early last year in collaboration with SAUDIA and flynas, our national carriers,” Al-Dabbagh said, adding that it is now “easier than ever” for Indians to visit the Kingdom.

Indians have been drawn mainly to the growing number of cultural attractions, with archaeological works in full swing and the development of leisure infrastructure.

The top destinations are currently Madinah, Riyadh, Jeddah, and AlUla — one of the Kingdom’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites.

“Saudi has been promoting its rich cultural and historical heritage through key initiatives like the restoration and preservation of heritage sites such as AlUla and Diriyah and the development of cultural festivals and events,” Al-Dabbagh said.

“To offer Indian travelers a plethora of accommodation options and recreational activities tailored to their preferences, we have invested heavily in developing tourism infrastructure, including hotels, resorts, and entertainment facilities, to accommodate the growing number of visitors.”

Tourism is a booming sector in Saudi Arabia under the Vision 2030 diversification plan. A key part of the vision is to position the Kingdom as a dynamic, diverse, year-round tourism destination and market that will contribute 10 percent of the gross domestic product by 2030.

In the last three years, India has emerged as a key tourism source market, and the STA expects it to become its largest in the next few years.

“By 2030, India is anticipated to become the number one inbound market for Saudi, underlining the growing importance of Indian tourists,” Al-Dabbagh said.

“Our aim is to welcome 7.5 million Indian visitors by 2030, aligning with our ambitious goals to enhance and diversify the tourism sector while fostering stronger connections between the two nations.”


India’s Assam scraps colonial-era Muslim marriage law

India’s Assam scraps colonial-era Muslim marriage law
Updated 25 February 2024
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India’s Assam scraps colonial-era Muslim marriage law

India’s Assam scraps colonial-era Muslim marriage law
  • Eighty-nine year law allowed marriage involving underage Muslims 
  • Leaders of India’s Muslim community decry move as discriminatory

GUWAHATI, India: India’s Assam state has scrapped an 89-year-old law that allowed marriage involving underage Muslims, against opposition from leaders of the minority community who called the plan an attempt to polarize voters on religious lines ahead of elections.

Assam, which has the highest percentage of Muslims among Indian states at 34 percent, has previously said it wants to implement uniform civil laws for marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance, as the state of Uttarakhand did earlier this month.

Nationwide, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other groups follow their own laws and customs or a secular code for such matters. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised a Uniform Civil Code, opposed by Muslims.

Assam repealed the Assam Muslim Marriages and Divorces Registration Act, 1935, effective from Feb. 24, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma wrote on X on Saturday.

“This act contained provisions allowing marriage registration even if the bride and groom had not reached the legal ages of 18 and 21... This move marks another significant step toward prohibiting child marriages in Assam.”

Asked by Reuters on Sunday whether the northeastern state would implement a Uniform Civil Code before general elections due by May, Sarma said: “Not immediately.”

Many Muslims in Assam trace their roots to the neighboring Bengali-speaking and Muslim-majority country of Bangladesh. Tension often flares between the Muslims and ethnic Assamese, who are mostly Hindu.

The BJP, the governing party in Assam — and Uttarakhand — calls itself the champion of ethnic communities.

Muslim opposition leaders said repealing the colonial-era law was discriminatory.
“They want to polarize their voters by provoking Muslims, which Muslims will not let happen,” Badruddin Ajmal, a lawmaker from Assam who heads the All India United Democratic Front that mainly fights for Muslim causes, told reporters on Saturday.

“It’s a first step toward bringing a Uniform Civil Code, but this is how the BJP government will come to an end in Assam.”


Republican seeks to bar party from paying Trump’s legal bills

Republican seeks to bar party from paying Trump’s legal bills
Updated 25 February 2024
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Republican seeks to bar party from paying Trump’s legal bills

Republican seeks to bar party from paying Trump’s legal bills
  • The former president faces four criminal trials and was recently ordered to pay about $540 million in judgments in two civil cases
  • “The RNC’s job is to win elections. It’s not to pay the legal bills for any leading candidate,” says the Republican National Committee member

NEW YORK: A Republican National Committee member has submitted resolutions that would prohibit the party from paying presidential candidate Donald Trump’s legal bills, according to a draft, but the measures must get more backers soon to move forward.

Mississippi RNC committeeman Henry Barbor drafted the resolution on Trump’s legal expenses and another requiring the party committee to stay neutral in the presidential race until he receives enough delegates to secure the nomination.
“The RNC’s job is to win elections. It’s not to pay the legal bills for any leading candidate. He’s got to fight his own legal fight,” Barbor told Reuters on Saturday.
Barbor needs to get two cosponsors from 10 states to join the effort by Tuesday for the resolutions to proceed to a full vote by the RNC’s 168 committee members. That vote could come in March and would require a simple majority to pass. But Barbor predicted they would be defeated if they reach that point.
Former President Trump, who denies all wrongdoing, faces four criminal trials and was recently ordered to pay about $540 million in judgments in two civil cases.
A Trump super PAC reported paying more than $47 million in legal expenses for him in 2023.
Trump is seeking to cement his status as Republican presidential nominee and gain more control over the RNC, including by nominating daughter-in-law Lara Trump as co-chair.
Lara Trump has said it is “a big interest to people” to pay fees for her father-in-law’s criminal and civil cases.
Barbor said pro-Trump forces were “jumping the gun” by seeking to declare Trump the party’s presidential nominee while longshot challenger Nikki Haley remains in the race for the Republican nomination to face Democratic President Joe Biden in the November election. Trump is on course for another easy win in South Carolina’s primary on Saturday.
The resolutions were first reported by The Dispatch. Trump campaign co-manager Chris LaCivita, who Trump has proposed serve as the RNC’s chief operating officer, on Saturday said in a statement that it is “the RNC’s sole responsibility to defeat Joe Biden and win back the White House.”
On Friday, he said the RNC would not use raised funds to pay for Trump’s legal bills.


British PM Sunak says West should be bolder about seizing Russian assets

British PM Sunak says West should be bolder about seizing Russian assets
Updated 25 February 2024
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British PM Sunak says West should be bolder about seizing Russian assets

British PM Sunak says West should be bolder about seizing Russian assets
  • The European Union, US, Japan and Canada froze some $300 billion of Russian central bank assets in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine
  • Sunak also urged the US to continue to provide financial and military support for Ukraine

LONDON: Western nations should be bolder about confiscating Russian assets which they froze after the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.
Sunak, in an article in an early edition of the Sunday Times to mark two years since the start of the conflict, said Ukraine continued to need more long-range weapons, drones and munitions, as well as other assistance.
“We must be bolder in hitting the Russian war economy .... And we must be bolder in seizing the hundreds of billions of frozen Russian assets,” he said .
Last month British Investment Minister Dominic Johnson met US Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo to discuss the seizure of frozen Russian assets, but stressed this needed to be done in accordance with international law.
The European Union, US, Japan and Canada froze some $300 billion of Russian central bank assets in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Group of Seven countries have been studying a possible seizure of the assets as a way to have Russia pay for the damage its invasion caused in Ukraine.
Sunak also urged the US to continue to provide financial and military support for Ukraine.
“We should never underestimate what America has done for Ukraine and for Euro-Atlantic security. I urge them to continue that support, and I am confident they will,” he wrote in the article.
Britain’s defense ministry announced 245 million pounds ($311 million) of aid to fund Ukrainian artillery ammunition on Saturday.


Trump notches easy win over Haley in march to Republican nomination

Trump notches easy win over Haley in march to Republican nomination
Updated 25 February 2024
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Trump notches easy win over Haley in march to Republican nomination

Trump notches easy win over Haley in march to Republican nomination
  • Haley vows ‘not giving up,’ saying while Trump is strong within the party, he cannot win a general election
  • Poll says 32 percent of voters in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary contest think Trump would not be fit for the presidency if he were convicted of a crime

CHARLESTON, United States: Donald Trump cruised to a decisive victory Saturday in the South Carolina Republican primary, blitzing rival Nikki Haley in her home state and continuing his march to the nomination and a White House rematch with Joe Biden.

Nonetheless, Haley vowed to fight on Trump may have strong support for the Republican nomination, she has better chances of winning in the presidential race than Trump.

“I said earlier this week that no matter what happens in South Carolina, I would continue to run... I’m a woman of my word. I’m not giving up this fight when a majority of Americans disapprove of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” she said.

Trump completed a sweep of the first four major nominating contests, converting a year of blockbuster polls into a likely insurmountable lead going into the “Super Tuesday” 15-state voting bonanza in 10 days.

While Haley repeatedly questioned the 77-year-old former president’s mental fitness and warned another Trump presidency would bring “chaos,” her efforts appeared to do little to damage his standing among Republicans.

The margin of victory was not immediately clear but it was expected to be significant, with major US networks calling the race within seconds of the polls closing.

Haley, a popular governor of South Carolina in the 2010s and the only woman to have entered the Republican contest, was looking to outperform expectations in her own backyard and ride into Super Tuesday with wind her sails.

But she was never able to compete in a battleground that preferred Trump’s brand of right-wing “America first” populism and personal grievance over the four indictments and multiple civil lawsuits he faces.

Meanwhile, some 32 percent of voters in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary contest think Trump would not be fit for the presidency if he were convicted of a crime, according to the preliminary results of an exit poll conducted on Saturday by Edison Research.
The poll gathered responses from 1,508 voters in the Republican contest. Updated results will be available as more responses are gathered.

Trump had already won Iowa by 30 points and New Hampshire by 10, while a dispute in Nevada led to the real estate tycoon running unopposed in the official contest.

The margin of Trump’s victory was always the main question in South Carolina, with analysts arguing that Haley managing to whittle the gap to 15 points or less would have counted as a good night.
Trump aides have been clear however that they want to see off Haley long before the Republican National Convention in July — and are expecting the party to coalesce around the front-runner ahead of the first of his criminal trials on March 25.

Trump made clear Saturday that he is looking beyond Haley to a likely November contest against Biden.
Speaking ahead of voting booths closing to the Conservative Political Action Committee conference — a must-stop for Republican politicians — Trump spent much of his time bashing Biden, not Haley.
Haley — a traditional conservative who espouses limited government and a muscular foreign policy — has argued that a Trump presidency would be mired in scandal from day one.
The 52-year-old former UN ambassador underscored the point Saturday by describing as “disgusting” comments Trump had made to Black conservatives on the campaign trail.

“It’s disgusting. But that’s what happens when he goes off the teleprompter. That’s the chaos that comes with Donald Trump,” Haley said at a polling station in her home state.
“That’s the offensiveness that’s going to happen every day between now and the general election, which is why I continue to say Donald Trump cannot win a general election,” she added.
Trump made the comments Friday evening in a speech to Black conservatives.
Nodding to his multiple indictments, Trump said that “Black people like me because they have been hurt so badly and discriminated against, and they actually viewed me as I’m being discriminated against.”
Haley has also blasted Trump’s reaction to the death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny — he avoided criticizing President Vladimir Putin — and his threat to encourage Moscow to attack NATO nations not meeting their financial obligations.
Her central argument — that polling shows her performing better than Trump in hypothetical matchups with Biden — may have fallen on deaf ears but she has vowed to stay in the race through Super Tuesday.
Analysts say she is building her profile for a potential 2028 run — and is poised to step in should legal or health problems knock Trump out of the race.
“Nikki Haley’s an incredible role model,” said one Republican voter, Julie Taylor. “She’s not giving up, she’s showing strength and grace and courage.”

One third of South Carolina Republicans would spurn Trump if he were convicted-exit poll
Some 32 percent of voters in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary contest think Donald Trump would not be fit for the presidency if he were convicted of a crime, according to the preliminary results of an exit poll conducted on Saturday by Edison Research.
The poll gathered responses from 1,508 voters in the Republican contest. Updated results will be available as more responses are gathered.