Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Clarification: The Islamic Center of New Mexico notes it has not had a formal relationship with the imam since 2014, although he has given guest lectures.
One of New Mexico’s top Muslim spiritual leaders has been held in federal detention for more than two months, despite a judge’s order he be released on bond, a move federal officials say is necessary due to alleged national security concerns.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court seeking his release, Tahla Elsayed’s attorney says he is the target of a “witch hunt.”
The arrest of Elsayed, a Saudi-born Egyptian citizen and Islamic studies scholar, on Sept. 1 stunned the local Muslim community and leaves the two mosques in Albuquerque without an imam, or priest.
Elsayed, 35, is suing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in federal court after the agency refused to allow him to post a $10,000 bond ordered by an El Paso immigration court judge, who ruled Nov. 1 that Elsayed was neither a danger to the community nor a flight risk.
The lawsuit – which includes hundreds of pages of documents, including those from his bond hearing – contends Elsayed has been the subject “of a witch hunt based simply on his religion and national origin,” and should be released.
He has been seeking a visa to work and had refused a demand by a Homeland Security agent that he leave the country. He is charged with overstaying his visa, despite having an application pending with immigration authorities.
The documents show that the FBI said it has “an investigative interest” in Elsayed and that a DHS attorney said the case “possibly involved a national security concern.”
ICE declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
The imam’s detention has rattled Albuquerque’s small, but growing, Muslim community.
Omar Momani serves on the board of the Dar Al-Salam Foundation of New Mexico and describes Elsayed as “a well-known imam” with “amazing qualifications.” Marrying a deep knowledge of the Quran and a “fun” lecture style, Elsayed “has everything you’re looking for in an imam or priest,” Momani said.
His detention was “a huge shock.”
“It was like somebody sucker-punched us in the face,” Momani said. “We didn’t know why this was happening. Everything we did was through a lawyer. The paperwork was filed. Why this was happening?”
Elsayed first came to Albuquerque three years ago at the invitation of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, where he led prayers during the holy month of Ramadan and offered religious lectures. He returned for Ramadan in 2014.
The new mosque in northeast Albuquerque, Dar Al-Salam, invited him back in 2015 as a guest lecturer, and, early this year, the Dar Al-Salam Foundation applied to the U.S. government for a new visa that would let Elsayed work, providing religious instruction.
While he waited for a response from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to his application, he and his wife, Ebtesam, enrolled their four children in Albuquerque public schools and volunteered in the Muslim community.
Then, Homeland Security Investigations called.
In late August, according to court documents, HSI special agent John Dennis called Elsayed to his Albuquerque office and told him to bring copies of his educational documents. Dennis informed him that his application for a work visa had been denied and he needed to leave the country.
But, according to court documents, online USCIS records showed that his application was still pending.
Dennis began calling the imam “once or twice per day regarding his intentions to leave the United States,” according to court documents.
Elsayed told Dennis he was afraid to go back to Egypt and, if his visa petition was being denied, wanted to apply for asylum in the U.S. According to court documents and an interview with Elsayed, the imam told Dennis he feared persecution by the Egyptian government for his participation in the Arab Spring protests in favor of the democratically elected, then deposed, Islamist President Muhammed Morsi.
Last fall, Egyptian security forces detained his brother in connection with his and Elsayed’s participation in the protests. The family alleges he was tortured and questioned about Elsayed, as well.
Dennis told Elsayed he needed to leave the United States with his family by Sept. 1. Instead, Elsayed prepared his asylum application and brought it to a Rio Rancho post office, where he was arrested by Dennis as he was paying the postage.
With Elsayed in ICE detention and a bond motion pending in immigration court, DHS argued to the judge that Elsayed should remain in custody while awaiting deportation.
In a court filing, DHS said, “Although there is no evidence that the respondent has ever been charged or convicted of any crime, there is evidence that raises serious safety and security concerns. The FBI Headquarters Counterterrorism Division specifically notified the Department that it has an investigative interest in the respondent (Elsayed) and provided a letter to support a request for his continued detention pending his removal proceedings. Such evidence, while admittedly circumstantial, presents security concerns that cannot be overcome … .”
The FBI letter says only that it has “an investigative interest” and provides no other information.
The FBI is tasked with investigating people for ties to terrorist organizations and the agency has come under fire in the past for clearing suspects prematurely, such as the Orlando nightclub shooter, who had been under review.
The FBI’s letter regarding Elsayed and DHS’ arguments were not enough to convince Immigration Court Judge William Abbott to order Elsayed’s continued detention and instead the judge ordered he be released on bond.
“Here is the problem,” said Olsi Vrapi, Elsayed’s attorney, who has served as legal counsel for two other Albuquerque Muslims who have faced deportation in the past 18 months. “Homeland Security Investigations officials in Albuquerque shake down Muslims. They call you and say, ‘You are from a sensitive country; we want to talk to you.’ It’s a very common practice.”
And ICE can ignore an immigration court order.
“The immigration court doesn’t have power to enforce its own ruling,” said Jessie Miles, an attorney working with Vrapi on Elsayed’s case. “The judges don’t have contempt of court. They operate on good faith that ICE will follow their order.”