When he talks about his coming court case, Michel Shehadeh sounds more like a civics teacher than someone the FBI says poses a threat to national security.
Today, 11 years after federal agents came to kick the pro-Palestinian activist out of the country for allegedly raising money for terrorists, Mr. Shehadeh will climb the steps to the US Supreme Court and watch lawyers battle over his future.
The central issue is the rather technical matter of whether immigrants have a right to seek redress in federal court in the midst of a deportation proceeding. But broader questions abound. Chief among them is the extent to which the United States Constitution requires government toleration of unpopular, even threatening, political activity.
"In a way it is an honor to be engaged in a case to defend the ideals of what America is all about: the right to speak out and be free to engage in debate without fear of prosecution," says Shehadeh, a green card holder. "I feel I am fighting to make America a better place, a better country."
On the other side are those who believe that if Shehadeh wins, the US will be a more vulnerable place in an era of increasingly sophisticated and dangerous terrorists.
Shehadeh is one of eight pro-Palestinian activists - all prospective immigrants - whom federal agents in Los Angeles targeted in the 1980s as suspected supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The State Department designated the PFLP as a terrorist organization.
Shehadeh and his colleagues, known as the LA-8, deny any connection to the PFLP and say their fund-raising went solely to humanitarian causes.
After years of investigation, the FBI was unable to prove a direct, criminal link between any fundraising and illegal acts of terror. The agents then turned over their 11,000-page case file to the Immigration and Naturalization Service with a recommendation that the eight be deported on grounds that they posed a risk to national security.
The LA-8 decided to fight back. They took their case to a federal judge, arguing that would-be immigrants enjoy a right to engage in political activities, including raising money for lawful projects overseas. They say the government is guilty of selective enforcement, since immigrants have never been deported because of ties to organizations such as the Irish Republican Army.
The judge agreed, and so did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Clinton administration asked the Supreme Court to revisit the issue, particularly in light of a 1996 law that bars anyone in the US from raising money on behalf of a designated terrorist organization. The Supreme Court declined to consider that issue, but agreed to take the case.
The high court will examine if immigrants have a right to seek help in federal court before their deportation proceeding is complete.
Lawyers for the LA-8 argue that because federal agents violated their clients' First Amendment rights, those violations must be addressed immediately by a federal judge.
US lawyers counter that a 1996 law bars immigrants from seeking redress in federal courts until after their deportation hearings are over.
David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor, has represented the LA-8 since 1987. He says if the court agrees with the government, it will mean federal agents can muzzle noncitizen activists by seeking to have them deported.
"If [government lawyers] are right, the government will be free to chill core political activities by immigrants whenever it chooses, simply by putting them into deportation proceedings and then barring them from going to court to challenge that action for many years," he says.
Mr. Cole says the government's actions against the LA-8 have intimidated many law-abiding Arab-Americans from speaking out and raising funds because they are not sure whether federal agents will next target them for deportation.
Such intimidation tactics and the unsettled state of the law are harming the entire nation, Cole says. "Unless everyone in this country is free to speak his mind and engage in political activity, the public debate as a whole will be impoverished." Others argue that in these times of heightened concern about terrorism, the US needs a fast means of deporting would-be immigrants found to be engaging in anti-US activities.
"The federal government ought to have a right to quickly deport people who it feels are national security risks," says Richard Samp, chief counsel at the Washington Legal Foundation.
He says the current case illustrates the difficulty of the issue. "How are we going to protect ourselves from terrorist activity in this country if it takes the INS 11 years of fighting in the courts just to start administrative proceedings against suspected terrorists?"
JAMES ZOGBY is a longtime activist in the Arab-American community. He agrees that 11 years is too long, but for a different reason. He feels the immigrants have already proved their case and should be left alone.
"Justice ought not wait 11 years and cost a half million dollars," he says, referring to legal bills.
As for Shehadeh, he denies any link to terrorists. And he says he is hopeful the Supreme Court will end his ordeal. But if not, he vows to fight on.
"America is my home. Both my kids were born here, and I have lived here in this country for two-thirds of my life," he says. "And if those people ... think they can push me away and uproot me, they are wrong."