The mystery is solved. The immigration detainee from Yemen who's been staging hunger strikes at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma is Abdul Rahman Almaghzar. I was tipped off by an immigration attorney familiar with his case.
I've now spoken with Almaghzar's former attorney, Philip Smith of Portland. I've also reviewed court records. Based on those sources, here's the short version of Almaghzar's long story. It's one that glimpses the complexity of immigration law and its effect on real people.
According to court records, Almaghzar came to California in 1992 and filed for asylum on the basis that if he returned to Yemen, he would be persecuted by pro-communist forces. Two years later, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) denied his request. Almaghzar got a lawyer and continued his fight.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, Almaghzar moved to Oregon and got married to a U.S. citizen. That could have been his ticket to stay in the states, but soon the marriage ended, and INS began "removal proceedings."
In 1998, Almaghzar lost another bid for Asylum and was ordered to return home to Yemen. Not only that, the immigration judge handling the case found that Almaghzar had filed a "frivolous" asylum application and wasn't credible because he told "two different tales about his treatment in Yemen."
Almaghzar appealed, but while his appeal was under review, he got in trouble with the law. The charges: selling methamphetamine and trading food stamps for meth. According to Almaghzar's former attorney, the crimes happened while he was operating a convenience store in Portland. He pleaded guilty in 2000 and was sentenced to more than three years in federal prison.
After he got out of prison, in 2003, Almaghzar was handed back to immigration officials. His conviction made him ineligible for asylum. So he pursued relief under the Convention Against Torture - an avenue that had not previously been available to him.
According to court records, this time a psychologist testified that Almaghzar "suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder stemming from imprisonment and torture in Yemen and from sexual abuse suffered at a young age." This, the psychologist testified, explained Almaghzar's conflicting stories about what happened to him in Yemen and why he was afraid to go back.
But again, the Immigration Judge didn't buy it, nor did the Board of Immigration Appeals. In fact, the courts rejected the psychologist's testimony as not credible. Once again, Almaghzar was ordered back to Yemen.
But that wasn't the end of his fight. Almaghzar appealed all the way to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Last year, he lost that appeal, too. The court said that to prove a "Convention Against Torture" claim, "an alien must prove that it is more likely than not that the alien would be tortured if removed." Further, "an alien must establish that he or she would be tortured on account of a particular belief or immutable characteristic."
The court concluded that although there is evidence of torture in Yemen, it's not clear Almaghzar would be tortured if he returned.
In a scathing partial dissent, Judge Raymond C. Fisher allowed that "Almaghzar's credibility is highly suspect," but he took the immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals to task for "completely ignoring our standards for adjudicating Convention Against Torture (CAT) claims."
Judge Fisher blasted the immigration judge for "abusive and unprofessional" behavior. And he said the immigration judge "failed to articulate with any specificity why the country conditions evidence of torture in Yemen, along with the other evidence in the record, did not suffice to establish Almaghzar's CAT claim."
According to Philip Smith, Almaghzar's former attorney in Portland, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to take another look at this case. In other words, Almaghzar has reached the end of the line legally.
Today, he sits in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, refusing to cooperate with Yemeni officials to obtain a "travel document" to return home. ICE officials previously explained to me that they can't deport Almaghzar until and unless he cooperates with the Yemeni government and receives permission to return there. As a result, the deportation is stalled - indefinitely.
Meanwhile, Almaghzar has staged hunger strikes and had to be force-fed under court order. Smith, his former attorney, says Almaghzar has "serious mental issues" and questions whether he's getting the care he needs.
Virginia Kice, an ICE spokesperson, responds that her agency spent nearly $100 million last year nationwide on health care for immigration detainees - including physical, dental, and mental care.
At the Northwest Detention Center, medical services are provided by uniformed members of the U.S. Public Health Service.
Citing privacy concerns, Kice wouldn't discuss Almaghzar's medical condition. But she did say: "Judges at all levels have found that he's not legally entitled to be in the United States. ... This is someone who's had ample access to due process, and he holds the keys to his own freedom."
Kice wouldn't speculate on what will happen if Almaghzar continues to refuse to cooperate - although she says cases like this are not unheard of and sometimes a third-party country will step in and accept a detainee.
Kice also says it's a crime to refuse to cooperate with deportation, and ICE could take Almaghzar to court - but she says her agency would prefer to avoid going that route.
When I saw Almaghzar inside the Detention Center last month, he was in a medical isolation cell and once again eating on his own.
The bottom line, says attorney Smith, is his former client is afraid to return to Yemen. "If that means he stays the rest of his life in a U.S. prison, he will probably do that."