Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Iranian Brothers' American Dream Turned into a Nightmare

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Iranian Brothers' American Dream Turned into a Nightmare

Article excerpt

Mostafa Mirmehdi is haunted by the words if only.

If only he hadn't sought the services of an immigration attorney who, unbeknownst to him, was under investigation by the FBI.

If only he hadn't attended a 1997 demonstration in Denver calling for democracy in Iran.

All the if only s in the world, however, can't alter the series of events that led Mostafa and his three brothers to the dubious distinction of being the longest-incarcerated detainees since 9/11: 41 months.

In 1978, Mostafa came to the U.S. to study mechanical nuclear engineering at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He continued his studies even after the revolution in his country diminished his father's ability to send money for his schooling. When the financial struggle to support himself and maintain good grades became too much, Mostafa decided to move to Southern California, where so many Iranians migrated during the final years of the shah.

The real estate market was booming and the bright young expatriate quickly passed the exam for a California realtor's license and built a clientele among Iranian immigrants.

If only, Mostafa regrets today, he had taken steps to apply for a green card when he dropped out of the university. At the time, he feared that, without a student visa, he might be forced to return to the turmoil engulfing Iran. Life was not good there, and his younger brothers were trying to escape military service as Iran and Iraq waged a bloody war. Social restrictions imposed by the mullahs' theocracy were stifling a new generation forced to obey medieval laws controlling what people read, and how they dressed and behaved socially.

By 1992, two of Mostafa's brothers, Mojtaba and Mohsen, had immigrated to the U.S. The following year another brother, Mohammad, joined them. All obtained work permits and realtors' licenses and bought properties in greater Los Angeles.

In 1997, a deadline was announced for Iranian expatriates seeking political asylum to remain in the U.S.

Among the many immigration attorneys who advertised in Iranian-American newspapers, the most noticeable ads were those of Bahram Tabatabai. The brothers went to his firm, where they were given blank asylum forms and instructed to sign them at the bottom.

A paralegal (who actually was an FBI informant with a criminal record) advised them to lie and cite more recent dates for entering the U.S. to immigration officers in order to meet asylum deadline qualifications.

If only, Mostafa laments, he and his brother Mohammad hadn't traveled in June 1997 to Denver, where they attended a rally outside a summit meeting of the G8 industrial nations. They were among thousands of Iranians who listened to Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and leaders of the Iranian opposition call for an end to the mullahs' regime. The demonstration was sponsored by the National Council of Resistance, an umbrella for many organizations, including the Mojahedeen-e Khalq.

If only the Clinton administration, seeking rapprochement with newly elected Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi, had not designated the MEK a terrorist organization in October 1997.

Matters came to a head on March 16, 1999, when federal agents arrested Tabatabai, charging that his firm was part of a ring fabricating fraudulent visa and asylum documents to immigrants not entitled to legal status, particularly those associated with the MEK.

The Mirmehdi brothers' asylum documents were confiscated. The FBI informant labeled them as bona fide MEK members, and the brothers were arrested. "We're going to send you to Iran as a gift to President Khatemi," they recall one agent telling them.

When the brothers called their parents in Tehran and broke the news that they had been apprehended by federal agents, their father suffered a heart attack and their mother was hospitalized for hypertension. They made a solemn vow never again to relate bad news that might harm their parents' fragile health. …

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