Visit gone awry: Detention roils a US-German family

On a trip to visit his daughter in California, Majed Shehadeh, the husband of a US citizen, was detained, strip-searched, denied his prescription medication, and held in a crowded cell.

Ever since Jimmy Carter was president, summer has meant one thing for Majed Shehadeh and his wife, Joanne Mulligan: time to pack. From their modest house in Bavaria, they migrate annually to their summer home in Massachusetts, where Ms. Mulligan was born and raised, with the accent to prove it.

But after making regular trips for decades, Mr. Shehadeh's last visit went deeply awry, indefinitely suspending his plans for returning.

A Syrian-born German citizen, he was detained when he flew into Las Vegas in December to celebrate his daughter's passing of the California bar exam. He was then strip-searched, denied his prescription medication, and kept in a crowded jail cell with no mattresses and a single toilet out in the open. Three days later, he was sent back to Germany.

"Since that ordeal, I'm afraid to go [to the US], and my husband can't go at all. For us, it's a catastrophe," says Mulligan.

Five years after 9/11, intensified security measures resulted in more than 500 people per day being denied entry to the US in 2006. For those traveling by air, that often means spending at least one night in detention.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has numerous mechanisms to ensure that travelers' civil rights are upheld during such detentions.

But a handful of high-profile cases like Shehadeh's, as well as critical reviews of detention facilities by DHS and civil-rights groups, indicate the enormous challenges in ensuring that the urgent effort to make the US more secure doesn't come at the expense of personal dignity and constitutional protections.

"Striking the right balance between security and civil liberties is very difficult – one of the more difficult aspects of the struggle against terrorism," says Lee Hamilton, who served as vice chair of the 9/11 Commission and is currently a member of the President's Homeland Security Advisory Council. "If you work at DHS ... the overriding concern is not to let the next Mohammad Atta into the country."

***

Soft-spoken with pale gray eyes, Mohamed Majed Shehadeh Refai is a consultant for companies that build water and sewage systems in the developing world.

He's nearing retirement age, yet still maintains a vigorous schedule, traveling often to the Middle East. His summers in Newburyport, Mass., offer precious respite. Since buying their rambling colonial estate here 30 years ago, he and his wife have set down roots in the community: their children attended the local schools for a short time, and they've paid a quarter-million dollars in property taxes over the past 10 years alone. Shehadeh has missed just one summer: 2004, when a heart attack and subsequent surgery left him hospitalized.

This year, he was eager to see how far the grapevines had crept up the trellis he built last September. He and Mulligan, both practicing Muslims and devoted parents, were also excited to visit their eldest daughter, Majida, who will deliver their first grandchild in late summer.

It was Majida he was going to visit when – having spent a month in Damascus, Syria, where his son is studying Arabic – he arrived at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas just after 2 p.m. on Dec. 28.

At immigration control, he handed over his German passport as usual. But this time, he says, the Syrian stamps aroused suspicion, and he was fingerprinted, searched, and questioned. Many questions related to his work, family, and name, which is also spelled Chehadeh. Others were more pointed: He recalls them asking, "Do you support Hizbullah or Hamas? Do you know any terrorists?"

***

Around 4:45 p.m., Mulligan, who was already in the country, tracked down an agent with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) who told her Shehadeh was being questioned. Four hours later, she learned he would be deported. When she asked to see him, her request was denied.

"I thought, 'This can't be happening,' " she recalls. "I can't see my own husband who is in the same building, and I'm an American. I'm an American!"

That night, Shehadeh was taken to the North Las Vegas Detention Center, where he says he was stripped of his belongings, including $1,000 in cash, and his heart medication, which he wouldn't receive for another 36 hours.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Lori Haley says the medication was withheld until a doctor could evaluate Shehadeh because the label was in German. "For his own safety, we had to make sure what he was ingesting was the right medication," she explains.

Shehadeh then joined about 25 other people in a holding cell that had metal benches, concrete floors, a single toilet in public view, and no blankets or mattresses – a setup confirmed by Tim Bedwell, a spokesman for the facility.

Shehadeh was so loath to use the toilet that during his three-night detention he says he ate only a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

Sleeping also proved difficult. Court TV was blaring through the night, says Shehadeh. "You could hear the gavel pounding over and over. It was like a special kind of torture."

The next day, Shehadeh says, he was led into a room and told to strip naked. Then he was ordered to kneel down and cough while a guard inspected him from behind.

Mr. Bedwell says every new inmate has to undergo a body-cavity search. "We can't have people bringing in contraband," he explains. "And the most common place people keep contraband is between the cheeks of their buttocks."

After the search was over, Shehadeh was handed a jail uniform and escorted to a less-crowded cell where he spent the next two nights.

It wasn't until the afternoon of Dec. 31 that he was summoned for release. He quickly collected his belongings, except his $1,000 in cash. Instead, he was issued a check, which he showed the Monitor, stamped "City of North Las Vegas Inmate Deposit Account" in the upper-left corner. (Too humiliated to cash it, he keeps it on his desk.) Then he was delivered to the airport gate shackled and unshaven.

"The whole process is only humiliation over humiliation over humiliation," he says.

***

DHS has numerous mechanisms to guard against mistreatment of detainees – foremost among them training programs.

"We knew that when we started, one of the best ways to assist all of our colleagues across the department was through training programs," says Dan Sutherland, who heads the department's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL). Some but not all of the programs include testing and are mandatory.

Topics include racial profiling, cultural competence, and detention standards – the last developed to reinforce a national policy developed by ICE's Detention and Removal Office with the American Bar Association.

According to Mr. Sutherland, a DHS team investigates complaints and reports its findings internally. In the first nine months of last year – the latest period for which data are available – 96 complaints were received.

Despite such measures, DHS's own inspectors have found many instances of noncompliance, according to a December 2006 report from the agency. Five of the facilities reviewed had "distributed handbooks that did not properly explain the process for reporting allegations of abuse and civil rights violations."

In addition, a May memo prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and based on some 200 reviews of detention facilities by DHS, the American Bar Association, and [UN refugee body] UNHCR between 2002 and 2005, claims to have evidence that the department is failing to achieve "minimal compliance." A full report is expected this summer.

Philip Hwang, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, argues that this is because "DHS hasn't made it a priority to check with all the detention centers across the country to make sure that the constitutional rights of immigrants are being upheld." He cites as an example the conducting of routine strip-searches absent individual suspicion – a practice US courts have deemed unconstitutional, even for nonresident immigrants.

Mr. Hwang worked on a case similar to Shehadeh's that the US government settled for $65,000 last spring. The plaintiff: Tsungai Tungwarara, a woman from Zimbabwe who was detained when she flew to San Francisco as an 18-year-old. Sent to the Oakland County Jail, she was kept overnight and strip-searched before being sent home.

The day Ms. Tungwarara's case was settled – April 12, 2006 – an Iraqi-born Spanish citizen, Safana Jawad, was sitting in the maximum-security wing of Florida's Pinellas County jail after being detained at Tampa airport. During her two-night stay, Ms. Jawad was also strip-searched. After being deported, she filed a complaint with DHS.

On Dec. 8, Sutherland's CRCL office issued an apology letter, saying it "recommended that steps be taken to ensure that persons similarly situated to you are not subjected to the same treatment." Three weeks later, Shehadeh was detained.

In a recent phone conversation with the Monitor, Sutherland could not readily identify any specific steps taken since. In follow-up interviews, his office said that recommendations made in the wake of Jawad's complaint – as well as any consequent steps – are internal matters and cannot be discussed.

Not everyone thinks DHS is overstepping its bounds in dealing with foreign travelers, however.

Bruce DeCell, a former New York police officer whose son-in-law was killed in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, says the agency needs more latitude, not less.

"If you detain someone, and it turns out that you're wrong, you're in hot water," says Mr. DeCell, a board member of 9/11 Families for a Secure America. "It's not that I look to inconvenience prospective citizens or [foreign travelers], but to worry about inconveniencing them and then allowing a criminal or terrorist to gain entry – how do you weigh that? I think the safety of the citizens of the country is more important than anything else and if it inconveniences people ... that's just tough."

***

Why Shehadeh was blocked from the US remains a mystery to those outside DHS.

Germany's Foreign Ministry has been since December to find out from the US State Department why Shehadeh was denied entry and to get information about his treatment in custody.

Michael Ebel, a spokesman for the ministry, says Germany has no reason to believe that Shehadeh is dangerous: "For us, he is simply a German national who ran into trouble abroad and needs our assistance."

Back in Massachusetts, Paula Chase, the Shehadehs' neighbor and friend of 30 years, has also been trying to rally support among local organizations and congressmen. She says she'll miss the Shehadehs this summer, as will her husband, Dick – the 10th generation of Yankees who were farming the Chases' Newburyport plot well before George Washington rode through in 1789. The guns used by his ancestors in the American Revolution and Civil War still hang inside the family home.

"I have to say, my country has embarrassed me," said Mr. Chase on a recent spring day, standing under the trellis Shehadeh built – and for which Chase provided the grapevines. Shehadeh insisted on paying, but he refused. "I told him, 'Majed, your friendship is worth 10,000 grapevines to me.' "

As for the Shehadehs, they've been "living on pins and needles," says Mulligan. "Our whole lives are up in the air."

She says she's had trouble sleeping and is locking her door for the first time.

Underneath it all is the fear that her family will drift apart. "That's a very, very big burden," she says.

A former teacher for US military personnel in Germany and self-professed "computer know-nothing," Mulligan learned to use e-mail so she could launch a relentless cybercampaign to find out why her husband was detained and how to prevent it from reccuring. Her dining table is stacked with e-mails, newspaper clippings, and response letters. None provide answers.

For Shehadeh, the ordeal has taken a professional toll as Middle Eastern business contacts began to worry about ending up on a watch list by association.

He and Mulligan have also started bickering and he struggles with anger. "I try to push it down, but it won't go away," he says.

Mostly, though, he talks about missing the solace he found amid the sheltering evergreens and sloping lawns of his Newburyport home.

"It was my retreat, my sanctuary, in a country I have known and loved," he says, "and now I may never see it again."

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