Halfway safe at last, an Iraqi regrets helping U.S.
Publisher: The Philadelphia Inquirer
Author: By Trudy Rubin; Inquirer Columnist
Story date: 21/11/2011
Language: English

LARNACA, Cyprus – Salam Hamrani is safe – for now.

My Iraqi fixer and friend endured two years in a Baghdad jail. His crime: helping American troops nab Shiite mili-tants who were killing his Sunni neighbors. He was finally freed and escaped with his family to Greek Cyprus.

Our reunion in Larnaca was emotional and full of laughter. But Salam's story is a sad tale of U.S. failures and be-trayals in Iraq.

A Shiite whose uncle was hanged by Saddam Hussein, Salam was thrilled when U.S. troops ousted the dictator. As Iraq collapsed into civil war, he was furious when the militant Shiite Mahdi army moved into his mixed neighborhood and started killing Sunnis.

So he started tipping U.S. officers at a forward operating base in his district about the worst of these killers.

When U.S. troops withdrew, family members of one of these thugs got friends in the Iraqi army to arrest him, along with his two sons. A Shiite army general who was chummy with the killer's mother and sister made sure Salam stayed in prison.

Although U.S. civilian and military officials made inquiries (at my urging) and these may have saved Salam's life, they were unable to expedite his freedom. Finally, after two years, an honest judge – at great risk to his own life – freed Salam (there was no evidence against him).

But his Mahdi army enemies, who had murdered his brother while he was in jail, made death threats against him. And – under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – murderous Mahdi army militiamen who killed Iraqis and U.S. troops are being let out of prison.

So Salam sold his property and his wife's jewelry, packed up his family, including his 1-year-old granddaughter, and fled via Syria to Turkey. From Turkey, smugglers took the family in a small boat on a treacherous sea journey to Turkish Cyprus. The family gave baby Fatima a sleeping pill to keep her quiet.

They walked for hours in the dark to cross the Turkish-Greek Cypriot border, hushing Fatima's cries as they passed Turkish policemen. Then they requested asylum. They are waiting to hear from the Greek Cypriot Interior Ministry whether they will get refugee status that will enable them to stay on the island.

I hope they succeed, because if Salam has to return home, he won't live long. The price that Iraqis pay for having helped Americans has become hideously high.

This became painfully clear in the day and a half I spent with Salam and his family in Cyprus.
He's renting a small furnished apartment in Larnaca, where his courageous wife, Nadia – freed from her black abaya and veil – cooks for the family and plays with Fatima. Salam has not regained the 50 pounds he lost in prison and his features are much sharper than when we worked together in Baghdad.

Son Mustafa, 22, father of Fatima, sits silently, still haunted by his arrest and time in a tiny cell, too small to sit down in. Salam's other son, Marwan, 20, recalls beatings with cables and electric prods. Their army tormentors tried in vain to make them swear that their father was a terrorist.

Marwan now studies computer science and dreams of being able to have a normal adulthood, while Mustafa does little. These young men paid dearly for their father's "crime" of helping American troops.

Salam's gutsy assistance to his threatened Sunni neighbors back home has not gone unrecognized. An Iraqi Sunni businessman whose son was kidnapped by Shiite militiamen – and rescued by Salam – contributed some money to the Hamrani family's escape.

Another Sunni neighbor named Samer, whom Salam rescued from Mahdi army goons, visited him repeatedly in prison, and then fled to Cyprus. As Salam and I sat at an outdoor table at McDonald's on the Larnaca seafront boardwalk, where Iraqi refugee families come to stroll in the winter's cold, Samer dropped by.

The two men recalled how, when smugglers dropped Salam and his family off in Larnaca in the middle of the night, he called Samer, who rushed to help them. But when the men started discussing their uncertain future, the conversation died.

Salam and his family are still living in limbo. Greek Cypriot officials have told him he will get refugee status (which gives the right to work but not citizenship), yet this still hasn't come through. And despite his work with American journalists, and the huge risks he took to help U.S. troops, Salam's chances of coming to America are slim.

Congress established a Special Immigrant Visa program in 2008 to help Iraqis who are endangered because they helped us. The program promised to grant 25,000 primary visas over five years (with more visas for family members); less than 3,500 have been issued so far. And just when those visas are most needed – with all U.S. troops set to leave by the end of this year – the program has been frozen by new security requirements.

Only 10 applicants were admitted in August, 40 in September, 98 in October; a backlog of thousands is still waiting. Iraqis who have completed the SIV process are being told they must wait eight to nine more months, even though many face death threats.

I'm getting e-mail from Iraqi interpreters who have had to leave U.S. military bases that are closing, and are moving from house to house lest they be murdered. In eight to nine months, those interpreters may well be dead.

Top U.S. officials tell me they are focused on the Iraqi visa issue; yet, despite their claims, little is moving. They refuse to consider the one act that might save Iraqis under death threat – an emergency airlift. They could be taken to Guam, where additional security checks could be conducted before the refugees entered the United States.

This failure to act is a blot on America's honor, a betrayal of Iraqis who risked their lives to help us.

Salam, at least, is safe – for now. But as we sit eating ice cream and looking out at the sea, he muses on whether his work with U.S. soldiers had been worth it.

"Why did you do it?" I ask.

"I did it because I like my country," he responds fiercely, "and the Mahdi army was working for Iran."

Then he continues, in a troubled voice: "I made trouble for my family by trusting the Americans. I worked with the Americans for no money because I believed they were friends of Iraq.

"People said they were occupiers, but me, I said no, they were liberators. Why did they forget me? When America takes what it wants and then they leave all their friends, it makes people feel they made a mistake in helping America."

Is this the best we can do for those who aided us in Iraq?
 

Southwest Ranches, Upscale Florida Town, In Fight Over Plans For Immigrant Prison
Publisher: the Huffington Post, USA
Author: LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ
Story date: 21/11/2011
Language: English

SOUTHWEST RANCHES, Fla. – In one of South Florida's upscale, rural enclaves, where peacocks roam and horse trails are as common as sidewalks, town leaders decided to bring in much of their money from an unusual business: a prison.

Only the leaders of Southwest Ranches kept their plans quiet from residents for almost a decade, and the project has now ballooned into what would be among the federal government's largest immigrant detention centers. The town would have to pay $150,000 each year to keep the prison, but officials say the town would turn a profit by getting 4 percent of what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays the company operating the prison to hold inmates there.

Many residents finally caught wind of the idea this year, when the immigration agency announced a tentative deal, and they're angry. They've held protests at public meetings, contemplated whether to recall the mayor before his March election and whether to amend the town charter to make it easier to fire the city attorney pushing the deal.

The objection over the prison has created an odd set of allies among the town's affluent residents, many of whom are wary of illegal immigrants, and longtime activists who fight for immigrants, legal or not.

The proposed facility is part of the federal government's new plan to move immigrants from jails to detention centers it says are better for holding people with no criminal background. The centers are also supposed to be easier to reach for detainees' relatives and lawyers.

Plans are in the works for other facilities near San Antonio, Texas, and in Essex County, N.J. and Orange County, Calif. But none of those proposals has drawn the outrage seen in Southwest Ranches, the Fort Lauderdale suburb where telenovelas are filmed in the shaded ranches, and wealthy developers, Miami Dolphins football players and others seek privacy and a country lifestyle.

Diana Bramhall is one of 7,000 people living in the town. She trains horses and grows an array of exotic avocados at the Southwest Ranches home she has lived for 18 years. She hadn't heard of the prison plan until last year.

"I don't want my town built on the back of the detention of illegal immigrants," Bramhall said. "I think there are better ways to make money."

But according to Mayor Jeff Nelson and others involved at the time, the plan for some kind of prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison operator, was always integral to Southwest Ranches' ability to survive.

Nelson believes the plan has been out in the open, and officials list more than two dozen public meetings over the last decade where it was discussed. But residents insist the town did little to notify them.

An announcement for a Nov. 5 meeting about the detention center with ICE, CCA and Southwest Ranches officials was listed on the town website only as an "information meeting."

When the town incorporated in 2000, leaders annexed a 24-acre parcel of nearby land, sandwiched between a small women's prison and a dump. CCA had purchased the land just three years before. It was a curious move. The land wasn't connected by a road to the rest of the town. Many residents never even drove by it.

The town first tried to build a 700-bed county jail. By 2005, Southwest Ranches and CCA settled on a detention facility. The proposal was part of a growing trend among private prison contractors to move away from state and local facilities to federal ones. ICE facilities alone now provide about 12 percent, or nearly $200 million of CCA's total annual revenue, according to company filings.

Southwest Ranches and CCA sent a draft plan to ICE for review in 2007, two years before the agency officially put out its latest call for new proposals, according to records obtained by The Associated Press through a public information request.

In the latest version of the deal, calling for some 1,500 beds, Southwest Ranches could earn more than $1.5 million annually if ICE keeps the center filled year round. CCA officials say the number is closer to $400,000, in part because many beds may not always be filled, with another $400,000 in real estate taxes.

The 13-square mile town, which prides itself on low taxes, needs the revenue, recently telling the federal government it was struggling to meet its $9 million budget.

"We'll get a commission on every bed, I get that," said Bramhall. "But it bothers me that for my city, (such a large section) is now going to be from a jail. It's not really a selling point."

Job creation has been a selling point for CCA, local and federal officials.

"Beyond the detention professionals, you're also looking at a number of other professions: medical professionals, training professionals, food services professionals, chaplains. It's like a small city unto itself," CCA spokesman Steve Owen said.

Yet nearly two-thirds of the estimated 300 permanent jobs would be for guards.

"No one is going to want a job there. These are half million homes. People here earn $100,000 plus," said Ryan Greenberg, whose home in the neighboring city of Pembroke Pines sits across the road from the proposed site – closer than any home in Southwest Ranches itself.

At the Nov. 5 meeting with officials, residents echoed her sentiments. "We don't want your jobs!" they bellowed.

What they did want was to know why their own officials had been dodging them.

The CCA land wasn't included in maps published when the city was founded and the full city charter with the CCA lots isn't available on the city's website. It can only be found in the original resolution passed by state lawmakers in Tallahassee.

In January, days after the new year, town officials and CCA quietly sought to double the detention center space and expand to up to 2,200 beds with little public notice, eventually abandoning the plan following an outcry.

Southwest Ranches' City Attorney Keith Poliakoff urged officials in a June email to keep a "cone of silence" following ICE's announcement about the tentative deal.

"I have been fully advised by our DC contacts that we should remain fully quiet on this one and to let our DC Leaders help without sparking a fire that will make it more difficult for them to assist," wrote Poliakoff, also a partner in one of the state's most powerful lobbying firms.

Top Florida lawmakers in Washington like Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Shultz and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson have written letters to ICE in support of the detention center, though Wasserman-Shultz in recent weeks has also encouraged more communication with the residents. According to town and CCA emails, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio asked to attend a D.C. meeting on the plan, but CCA demurred, saying it would bring too much attention. Rubio has not taken a position the proposal.

Meanwhile, neighboring officials from Pembroke Pines have publicly expressed outrage over the secretive process while quietly signing deals with the town not only promising not to interfere but also to provide water service and fire protection.

Residents say they are waiting to see the final deal. They have successfully fought off far smaller development efforts, including plans for streetlamps and a toddler playground. They once even tried to pay another town to construct affordable housing before the state relaxed its requirements.

The Florida Immigrant Coalition, which organized the initial opposition efforts, recently demanded ICE halt plans until an environmental review is done on the impact of the nearby Everglades.

The alliance between the residents and activists has not been without tension. At the meeting with ICE officials, an activist who broached the subject of detainee treatment in private prisons was roundly booed.

But Southwest Ranches resident Bill Di Scipio said those who advocate for immigrant rights and those in the community who want more people deported, are united on this one.

"In the opposition to the prison, both sides of the immigration debate are represented," he said.
 

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