SHE FIGHTS ON LIBERTY'S FRONT LINES
Jack Chang, Contra Costa Times, 8/22/03
Before Sept. 11, 2001, attorney Banafsheh Akhlaghi split her time
teaching constitutional law at JFK University in Walnut Creek and
setting up a small law practice in a Berkeley office.
It was a simple, orderly arrangement that she enjoyed.
Then the planes hit, the government cracked down on thousands of
Muslims and Middle Easterners, and the now 34-year-old Iranian-born
woman's life took an unplanned turn into the heart of one of the
biggest civil liberties battles in decades.
A few days after the attacks, Akhlaghi received a call for help from
the secretary of a mosque in Folsom whom FBI agents wanted to
question. Such calls have since multiplied into an avalanche of cases.
Akhlaghi is arguably the most visible and prolific legal soldier on
the front lines defending immigrants, predominantly Muslims and
Middle Easterners, from government attempts to investigate and deport
"You need to be where you're needed," Akhlaghi said in her modern,
airy San Francisco office on a recent morning, while clients waited
to talk with her. "Everything else in my life is pretty much on hold."
In her view, government actions such as FBI questioning, requirements
that visitors from Muslim countries register with the authorities and
attempts to deport thousands of immigrants to those countries on what
she said were technical grounds constitute a systematic persecution
of an entire people.
She drew comparisons to the internment of thousands of Japanese-
Americans during World War II and said that history would remember
the current time with the same regret and shame.
"We're writing history here," Akhlaghi said. "I'll be 60 years old,
talking about, 'I remember when,' and I want to at least be able to
say, 'I didn't stand by and let this happen.'"
Her defiant stand has made her a target of death threats and
vandalism -- she has had her tires slashed -- and she said she knows
security and anti-terrorism measures are sensitive subjects in this
post-Sept. 11 era.
"But there's a way to do this and to do it humanely," she said. "This
way is very inhumane."
Her stand has also brought her accolades, with the Bay Guardian
weekly newspaper recently naming the Berkeley resident one of this
year's local heroes, and Rep. Mike Honda, D-Campbell, visiting her
office to hear the stories of her clients.
"She definitely gets more TV and print time than anyone else," said
Helal Omeira, Bay Area spokesman for the Council on American Islamic
Relations. "She's a good attorney, and she's also very charismatic,
Government officials argue that they must focus their investigations
and registration programs on people from Muslim countries because
that is where threats to the United States come from.
"I think people want us to protect their borders," said Sharon
Rummery, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Advocates for reduced immigration also defend the tactics government
"It's sound policy that during a time of war, (investigators) start
with countries that have supported terrorism," said Steven Camarota
of the Center for Immigration Studies. "But the government has to
make sure they make it clear immigration enforcement applies to all
"If they stick with (Muslims), that would be morally dubious."
Akhlaghi said her background as an immigrant from the Middle East
makes her especially sensitive to the way her "uncles and brothers"
are being treated.
Immigrating from Iran with her family at age 5, Akhlaghi grew up in
Buena Park and earned her law degree from Tulane University in 1998.
She became a U.S. citizen while in law school.
As her caseload ballooned after Sept. 11, Akhlaghi ended her JFK
teaching gig in 2002 to focus exclusively on defending immigrants
from government actions, a job that has her regularly working late at
night and on weekends.
By the beginning of this year, Akhlaghi found herself in the trenches
at San Francisco immigration headquarters, often representing lost-
looking people on the spot as they wrestled with immigration
authorities. She represents many of her clients without charge or at
Many of them have overstayed visas but are in the process of applying
for legal residency or a visa renewal, a situation that presents
little problem for immigrants from other parts of the world, she said.
Akhlaghi said she remembered one time in January when she spotted,
while helping another client, a panicked-looking Moroccan man whose
elderly, frail father was being led away by the authorities.
After quickly filling out a G-28 form allowing her to represent the
man, Akhlaghi took charge, making sure government officials followed
protocols she said they are often quick to violate.
"You don't expect to go to immigration and be treated like that,"
said the client who asked to not be identified. "I yelled out, 'Be
careful, he just had surgery,' as they were taking him away. It was
While speaking to a Times reporter, an assistant sent a telephone
call into the conference room -- another panicked man whose friend
had been detained on immigration charges.
While bailing out his friend, the caller, who was a U.S. citizen, was
taken aside by authorities and questioned about himself and his
friend, Akhlaghi said.
While talking, the attorney grew stern and then enraged, telling the
man to come into her office right away and tell her exactly what he
had told investigators.
Rummery said she did not know whether immigration officials would
have violated regulations in Akhlaghi's example.
When asked about another case described by Akhlaghi where a 65-year-
old Iranian woman was allegedly questioned for three hours before
entering the country, including two hours in English, which she did
not understand, Rummery responded, "There could be a lot of reasons
why something like that should happen."
For Akhlaghi, such cases add fuel to the fire of outrage and
injustice that drive her work.
"It infuriates me they get to get away with this stuff," she said
after hanging up with her surprise caller. "It's a violation. It's
arrogant. It's flat-out wrong. Why do it? Because you can.
"I feel like we're doing Rambo America enforcement. If they knew,
good-hearted Americans would be outraged."
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