Pair Eager To Leave Their Legal Limbo

A judge's ruling could soon bring an end to the 20-year ordeal of two Palestinians, members of 'the L.A. 8.'

By James Ricci, Times Staff Writer
February 9, 2007

U.S. loses 20-year attempt to deport 2 immigrants

In a manufactured house in the pine forests of central Oregon, where the glassy Deschutes River winds through the landscape like a musical theme, Michel Shehadeh counts the days. Twenty more, and, assuming the United States government takes no further action, his 20-year ordeal will end.

Seven hundred miles to the south, amid tract houses and dry pasture lands near Chino Hills, Khader Hamide counts, too.

Last week, a federal immigration judge threw out the government's deportation case against the two Palestinians, calling it "an embarrassment to the rule of law."

But Shehadeh, a freelance writer and erstwhile restaurateur, and Hamide, a coffee merchant and day trader, know better than to assume the best. Although they have won every legal proceeding in the government's extraordinary two-decade long campaign to expel them, law enforcement officials have until now always found a way to keep them in legal limbo.

Government lawyers have until March 1 to take Judge Bruce J. Einhorn's decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals. A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says a decision on whether to appeal is still pending.

Shehadeh and Hamide, both longtime legal residents of the United States, are part of a group known as "the L.A. 8," after the government began, in January 1987, to try to deport them for supporting the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical organization that was involved in airline hijackings and car bombings in the Middle East but that also has run social service agencies in Palestinian territories.

The eight defendants have maintained that they engaged only in constitutionally protected activity, such as distributing leaflets, participating in demonstrations and taking part in fundraisers, and that the case is an attempt to stifle immigrant voices of dissent from U.S. policy. None were ever charged with a crime.

During the legal proceedings, Shehadeh and Hamide have led ordinary suburban lives, running their businesses and ferrying their children to and from school events.

Shehadeh's English-born wife became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Hamide's Kenyan-born spouse acquired permanent-resident standing. Their five children were born in the United States and are citizens, a status their fathers, after more than 30 years in the country, covet for themselves.

Applying for citizenship, says Hamide, "would be the first thing I'd do once this case is over. I want to be able to vote. I want to have a passport of a country. Now, I'm a citizen of no country. I've been here 35 years. I have roots here, but somebody has tried to dry them out and cut them off."

Shehadeh also intends to pursue naturalization. "Of course. That's why I stayed here," he says. "I'm going to die here. I'm going to be buried in the United States."

Shehadeh is a fashionably goateed and shorn man of 50, who, though easily stirred to impassioned political discourse, displays a lighthearted nature. He was raised Catholic in the Christian West Bank town of Birzeit, served as an altar boy and for a time considered becoming a priest.

His mother was a hairdresser, and his stepfather a U.S.-educated engineer and naturalized American citizen. Shehadeh came to the U.S. to attend college, not on a student visa but as an immigrant.

"I came here for a way of life," he says. "I'd lived all my life under Israeli occupation, and I wanted to be free. I knew all about America. I was three-fourths Westernized before I set foot in America."

Shehadeh studied at Cal State Long Beach, where he acquired a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in public policy administration. From the beginning he was active in politics, especially in the promotion of Palestinian statehood.

It was for the latter that he ran afoul of American authorities, particularly for taking part in fundraising for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, to which both he and Hamide deny ever having belonged.

"I don't know if you can understand the transformation of a kid who lived his whole life where he couldn't open his mouth, and who then comes to an American campus where freedom of speech is sacred," he says. "I mean, you couldn't shut me up. I had opinions about everything and spoke in defense of gays, about South Africa, against the conflicts in Central America. They told us that the best citizens were those who are engaged, and we ended up being punished for trying to be like good citizens.

"But the harder the government pushed us, the more I believed in the principles of the Constitution. The judicial branch, after all, was fighting the executive branch in our case. It made me see the whole principle of checks and balances in real life."

During his legal proceedings, Shehadeh pursued his studies, served for six years as West Coast director of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and owned an Italian restaurant in Anaheim.

He moved his family to Oregon, to the volcanic, piney high desert south of the city of Bend, 18 months ago after his older son, Ibrahim, 24, visited the area and returned with glowing reports.

On his 1-acre plot, Shehadeh helps care for his younger son Rami, 15, and has taken up painting and woodworking, while he ponders pursuing a doctorate in education. Ibrahim has introduced him to fly fishing on Oregon's rivers.

"For an Arab, what a beautiful desert, with all this water," he says.

By comparison, Hamide, 52, plays in a minor key. A balding, serious man, he speaks in a slow, sonorous voice deepened by cigarettes. He serves a visitor a glass of hot tea and sets out a platter of cookies. "We're an Oreo house," he says, "with three boys here."

In the living room of his small split-level an entertainment center is set with a video-game console and family photographs, including one of his youngest son sitting on Santa Claus' lap.

Hamide's sons, Omar, 15, Rami, 13, and Sami, 7, shy away from the publicity that the legal case has generated. The publicity has been "mostly a good thing, but my kids don't want to be stamped or labeled," Hamide says.

While his children live their American lives, clothed in hip-hop fashion and participating in gifted-and-talented school programs, Hamide keeps part of himself ready to move to another land.

"The way I've felt for 20 years is like a feather in the air," he says. "I don't know when I'm going to land, where I'm going to land, if I'm going to land. Am I going to be in this country or not? Where am I going to go if I'm deported?"

Hamide is one of 13 children of a Muslim who worked the arid farmland south of Bethlehem, and one of only eight who survived childhood. He helped grow wheat, cucumbers, tomatoes and olives on his father's farm.

He came to the United States at age 17 to attend the University of Oregon, where he earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's of business administration. The coffee-and-tea wholesaling business he started 15 years ago has been unaffected by his legal battles "because we've always done well in the courts."

An unwelcome side effect, however, is his fear of making a wrong move in the government's eyes.

"I cry when we sit down to eat dinner because I just saw on Al Jazeera a story about children in my hometown going without food while we have so much food in this house," Hamide says. "I'm afraid to send $20 to some poor family because it might go through some organization that the government doesn't like."

Shehadeh and Hamide count themselves among a largely vanished breed in the Middle East: secular democrats. Misguided American policy, they say, has allowed authoritarian regimes in the region to obliterate secular opponents, creating a vacuum into which religious extremists have flowed.

Palestinians, Hamide says, "are probably the most secular people in the Middle East." The success of religion-based movements such as Hamas, "to me, is depressing," he says. "It's not what we're looking for."

As he counts the days toward the government's appeal deadline, Shehadeh acknowledges that his ordeal has not been without its benefits. It was heartening, he says, to see how people of all religions and ethnicities flocked to support him and the others when details of their case became public. "I have friends all over the place because of this case," he says.

Moreover, his sons have grown up with a keen sense of the importance of civil rights and citizenship.

"It's now a dream in my head, that one of my descendants will be a great senator, or even president," Shehadeh says. "I encourage my kids to be involved in politics. As much as the government has oppressed us, the country has given us much more, and serving it would be a privilege."