U.S. Citizens Exiled are Allowed to Return Home
A California father and son, who are both American citizens, were finally allowed to re-enter the U.S. on Sunday after being barred from returning when they refused to cooperate with the FBI.
Muhammad Ismail, a naturalized U.S. citizen, and his 18-year-old son, Jaber Ismail, who was born in Lodi, California were stuck in legal limbo in Pakistan, separated from the rest of their family, for nearly half a year.
The Ismail family's ordeal started on April 21, 2006, when Muhammad, his wife, Jaber, a teenage daughter, and younger son boarded a plane in Islamabad, excited about returning home to Lodi. The family had moved to Pakistan in order for Jaber to study the Quran.
On a layover in Hong Kong, airport employees told the family that Muhammad and Jaber could not continue on to the U.S. The family was told that there was “no record” of Muhammad and Jaber Ismail in the U.S. and that their passports did not appear in the computer system. This was the only explanation they were given.
“I showed them my birth certificate, my school ID, but they wouldn’t listen,” said Jaber Ismail.
While the rest of the family was allowed to continue home to Lodi, father and son returned to Pakistan--a country where neither holds citizenship. There, they contacted the U.S. Embassy, which advised them to book a direct flight from Islamabad to New York or Chicago. The consulate officer indicated that other families had encountered similar problems with connecting flights.
After waiting nearly two weeks for their luggage to be returned to them, Muhammad and Jaber Ismail made a second attempt to return home. Following the embassy's advice, they booked a direct flight from Islamabad to Chicago, with a connecting flight to San Francisco.
Upon arriving at the Islamabad airport, the Ismails were told by a Pakistani International Airline employee that they were on the “no-fly” list and could not board the plane without clearance from the U.S. Embassy.
The Ismails returned to the embassy, where a consulate official said that he would contact them with information about how to proceed. “I couldn’t believe this was happening to us again,” said Jaber Ismail.
Later that week, Jaber was interrogated by two FBI agents, and the source of the ban surfaced. On his passport application, Jaber had listed his uncle, Umer Hayat, as an emergency contact. Hayat’s son, Hamid Hayat, had been convicted in Lodi of a terrorism-related crime earlier this year.
Jaber and his father spent several weeks attempting to complete the interrogations and lie detector tests that FBI agents said were required before they could return home. When family members advised them not to speak to the FBI further without legal representation, the Ismails invoked their right to remain silent and sought help from the ACLU of Northern California (ACLU-NC).
“In effect, they were being held hostage in Pakistan by the U.S. government and told they could not come home unless they gave up their right to remain silent,” said ACLU-NC staff attorney Julia Harumi Mass, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on behalf of the Ismails in August.
In a compliant filed with the Department of Homeland Security, the ACLU-NC requested that the Ismails be removed from the no-fly list and cleared to return home to California to join the rest of their family.
On September 6, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties contacted the ACLU-NC. The Homeland Security spokesperson said that DHS had reviewed the complaint and that “changes have been made as appropriate,” but refused to confirm that the Ismails were free to return home or to provide any other information.
On Sunday, October 1 the Ismails attempted, for the third time, to return home. This time they succeeded.
“I was very happy when I learned that my father and I could return home,” said Jaber. “I never imagined that the country I was born in would stop me from coming home for five months and separate me from my family, especially when I was not even charged with a crime.”
“The fact that the government has retreated from its position after we filed our administrative claims, and the public became aware of it, highlights how wrong it was to require the Ismails to give up their constitutional rights in order to come home,” said Mass.
Statement from Jaber Ismail
I was very happy when I learned that my father and I could return to our country from Pakistan. I was born on September 29, 1987 in Lodi, California. I never imagined that the country I was born in would stop me from coming home for five months and separate me from my family, especially when I was not even charged with a crime.
I went to Pakistan for religious studies but I knew that I always wanted to return home to California. I believe in American values like freedom of religion and the rule of law. I have been looking forward to returning home, to living in peace and happiness, and to getting my high school diploma and a good job so I can help my family.
Statement from Muhammad Ismail
I was very happy to learn that I could finally return to California to my family and friends. I came to the United States to make a better life for my family. I was proud to become an American citizen and I was shocked when my new country refused to allow me to return. We stayed in Pakistan only so that our son could study the Quran. This was important to my wife and me because we are religious people. It has been very hard for our family to be separated the last five months. I have missed my wife and young children very much. My wish is that this never happens to anyone else.
ACLU of Northern California complaint filed with DHS (Aug. 9, 2006)