October 13, 2001 | Ibrahim Turkmen answered a knock on the door of his home in West Babylon, New York, to find two FBI agents. A solemn man with a strong jaw and deeply etched features, Turkmen was thirty-five years old at the time. Though his English was limited, he tried to tell the officers that he had arrived in the United States from Konya, a city in southwestern Turkey, more than a year earlier to visit a friend. In Konya, Turkmen had worked as an imam, earning a modest salary to support his wife and four daughters. Realizing that he could earn more in a few years in the United States than he could in Turkey, he decided to stay in America. He found jobs at gas stations and in construction and began sending money home.
The agents accused Turkmen of working with Osama bin Laden. They demanded his identification, and Turkmen handed over his passport with dread. In the weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, he had heard about government agents showing up at the homes and workplaces of other immigrants — and he knew that his tourist visa had expired months earlier.
The agents placed Turkmen under arrest and took him to a nearby Immigration and Naturalization Service office. Federal agents grilled him about his reasons for coming to the United States, his work experience, his religious beliefs. After several lengthy interrogations, he was taken to the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, New Jersey.
Soon after he arrived, he noticed that there were other foreigners in the unit. Turkmen knew a little French and Arabic. Using this linguistic hodgepodge, he understood that some of the detainees were Muslim immigrants with visa violations similar to his own. The men speculated anxiously about their fate. None of them had been charged with a crime or been allowed to contact a lawyer.
About a week after his arrest, Turkmen received an order to appear in immigration court. He was the first of the Turkish detainees to receive a summons, and the others in the unit acted as if it were a big honor. “Everyone was very envious of me,” he recalled, especially those who had been in the jail longer than he. Turkmen didn’t share the sentiment; he felt humiliated. “I was a man who had never even seen a courtroom before in my life,” he said.
At the hearing, Turkmen admitted that he had overstayed his visa, and the judge ordered him to leave the country by the end of November. He was relieved that he would be sent back to Turkey. His roommate in West Babylon bought him a ticket for the first available flight and delivered it to an INS office, where an official told him Turkmen would get it at the airport.
On the day of his departure, Turkmen awoke excited. His flight was scheduled for six in the evening. By two, no one had come to take him to the airport, and he began to worry. By three, he was panicked. Turkmen showed the deportation order to a guard, but the man said there was nothing he could do.
After his missed flight, days passed with no information. Turkmen’s uncertainty turned into hopelessness. The dormitory he shared with the other detainees — some of them serving sentences for murder or drug trafficking — was small and crowded. Guards patrolled with dogs in the middle of the night, keeping the prisoners awake. They interrupted Turkmen’s prayers and ignored his requests for food that followed Muslim guidelines.
Two months had gone by when a lawyer named Bill Goodman came to see Turkmen in January. The legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy organization, Goodman was struck by Turkmen’s quiet grace even as the prisoner wept while trying to explain what had happened to him. Goodman decided to document what Turkmen had experienced in detention, and for the next few weeks, he and his staff continued to interview Turkmen. Goodman learned that the FBI had labeled Turkmen a “person of interest” in the investigation into the September 11 attacks; he hadn’t been allowed to leave in November because he was still under suspicion. Turkmen would be detained until the investigation was completed.
Turkmen’s ordeal finally ended on February 25, 2002. Federal agents brought him to the Newark airport in handcuffs and put him on a plane to Istanbul. Along with his expired visa, he was now technically in violation of his deportation order, so he was banned from returning to the United States for ten years.
When I sought out Turkmen in Konya a few years ago, he met me for breakfast at a local hotel, dressed in a neat gray suit. “I went to America thinking of it as a country of law, a country of independence, as a country that serves as an example to the rest of the world,” he told me. “But I was destroyed there in a way I can’t describe.”
Even after Turkmen left the country, his plight continued to trouble Goodman. That year, he decided to file an ambitious lawsuit on behalf of Turkmen and his fellow detainees. It laid the foundation for a lengthy legal battle that, fifteen years later, could reach its climax this summer when the Supreme Court hands down its decision. The case poses a simple question: When can the legal system hold accountable those who occupy the highest offices in the land?
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