Feds to Muslim Immigrants: Spy for Us or Be Deported

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Secret Service agents stand watch as President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque in Catonsville, Maryland, on February 3. Reuters

This article first appeared on Reason.com.

Those who have followed the frustrating stories about the secretive operations of the federally controlled "no-fly" lists may have read about the accusations that some individuals who were on the list were told they would be removed if they served the government as informants.

Those who followed the scandal over the New York Police Department secretly snooping on Muslim schools and mosques (not just in New York but in New Jersey) may also have read about their reliance on paid informants who sometimes tried to actually bait people into saying inflammatory things.

And those who have closely followed cases where the FBI has busted up potential plots here within the United States have noticed that these often seem to be rather not-very-smart (or even mentally troubled) individuals who were being fed plans and ideas and even being provided fake bombs and weapons by undercover FBI agents.

The post–September 11 need to track down potential terrorist threats within the United States has created incentives where the determinant of "success" is that plots are actually stopped. This has created some pretty twisted mentalities among officials to find those successes even if they aren't out there (and can cause them to miss the ones that actually are).

And the victims of these twisted incentives can be anybody a federal official thinks might possibly be able to help them find these plots, even if these people don't know any (or if there aren't even any plots). It is dangerous to be the reason why a government official can't sit in front of a congressional hearing to say that their agency has stopped X number of attacks on U.S. soil.

As such, BuzzFeed reporters Talal Ansari and Siraj Datoo have a new lengthy investigation that shows how the FBI is interfering and threatening the immigration efforts of Muslims who want to remain as residents in the United States unless they serve as informants. If they don't have any useful information, the message is clear: They better go find some.

When he got the last call to come meet with FBI agents, "A.M." allowed himself an uncharacteristic bit of optimism. An immigrant from Pakistan, he had spent the last seven years trying to get a green card, a process that had so far included a series of interviews, three encounters with the FBI and unexplained bureaucratic delays. Maybe this meeting would bring some resolution?

But when the 37-year-old software programmer arrived at the Homeland Security offices in Dallas that day in August 2014, the conversation quickly swerved. One of the two agents placed a piece of paper on the table and told him to write down the names of all the people he knew who he thought were terrorists.

Bewildered, he said he didn't know any terrorists. He said he didn't know about any suspicious activity at all. "We think you do," the agents replied.

A.M. was quickly becoming alarmed. (Like almost all other immigrants interviewed for this story, he said he did not feel safe allowing his name to be published. A.M. is his initials.) He was a family man with a highly skilled 9-to-5 job. He had lived in America for nearly two decades. He went to college in America. Why would the FBI see him as a link to terrorism? And weren't they supposed to be discussing his green-card application?

As it turned out, that's precisely what they were discussing. "We know about your immigration problems," he recalls one of the agents telling him. "And we can help you with that." If, they said, he agreed to start making secret reports on his community, his friends, even his family.

The FBI is not supposed to be doing this, BuzzFeed noted. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had forbidden the practice of FBI agents offering immigration assistance in exchange for cooperation, and those policies are still officially in place. But in practice, immigration officials are dragging their feet on green cards, and then the FBI is swooping in and using the situation to browbeat people into becoming informants.

A.M. kept insisting that he didn't know anybody. They wanted him to wear a wire, go to his mosque and try to get folks to talk about jihad. He refused. His work visa was revoked. He and his family were kicked out of the country after living here for 17 years. Read more about his case and others here at BuzzFeed.

Former FBI agent Michael German told BuzzFeed that this outcome is a result of the push for agents to develop any Muslim sources they could get their hands on: "Rather than use all their energy to focus on the very small number of terrorists, they try to find anybody that they have a lever over to compel them to be an informant." And they don't seem to care what happens to them if they prove to not be useful.

Scott Shackford is an associate editor at Reason.com.

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