Freedom Fighter or Terrorist? The US Can’t Decide about Bangladeshi Immigrant Sachin Karmakar


In the spring of 1971, Sachin Karmakar was a 19-year-old college student who found himself swept up in the short and bloody war that marked the birth of the nation of Bangladesh.

Before it could secede from Pakistan, the fledgling nation was subject to a brutal crackdown by the Pakistani army, resulting in the death of 3 million Bangladeshis. The country’s Hindu minority was especially vulnerable to attack. Ten million fled to India. Karmakar’s father, a Hindu, was among the slain.

Karmakar remembers traveling by foot to India on a highway strewn with beheaded and mutilated corpses.

Like many other students, he had joined the Mukti Bahini, a pro-independence group whose name translates to “freedom fighters.” By the end of the year, India had sent thousands of troops to help, and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was born.

In the following decade, Karmakar became a captain in the Bangladeshi national army and a wealthy importer of Australian wheat. He also became well-known in the country as a leading advocate for the nation’s religious minorities.

In 2001, when radical Islamists came to power in Bangladesh, Karmakar again found himself in danger. Vigilante groups targeted Hindus and Buddhists for rape and murder. Karmakar himself was threatened with death by the local police; his mansion and office were ransacked; and the president of the country eventually declared him to be the equivalent of an enemy of the state. Karmakar was told by the national police chief that if he didn’t leave Bangladesh, he’d be jailed. He knew that jail meant torture, even death.

Within a week after receiving that warning, Karmakar had moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, leaving behind a wife and daughter. “I’d sooner jump off the Empire State Building than live in another Muslim country,” he says.

Karmakar’s persecution by radical Islamists and his long record of promoting the rights of religious minorities were both so well-documented that his request for political asylum in the United States was approved just 13 days after he applied for it. His case officer, he says, told him it was the fastest approval she’d ever granted.

Which helps explain why Karmakar was so shocked when he received a letter in February that informed him that the government intended to deny him a “green card,” the permit necessary for him to live and work permanently in the U.S. and to apply for citizenship.

The reason? Because he had been a member of Mukti Bahini, an “undesignated terrorist organization,” said the letter from an immigration official in Texas.

The irony was not lost on Karmakar.

The government intended to deny him a green card for having been a freedom fighter, which was part of the reason he was welcomed into this country in the first place.

A day after Karmakar received his notice, a similar letter arrived at the Bronx home of an Afghani restaurant owner named Mohammed Rasul.

When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Rasul was working in his father’s clothing shop in Kandahar and getting ready to finish high school. After the invasion, all he remembers is fighting. Homegrown groups of Muslim freedom fighters, called “mujahideen,” formed to fight the Russians, whom they saw as illegitimate occupiers. The mujahideen enjoyed widespread support in Afghanistan—and significant financial and military backing from the United States. For years, Rasul recalls, not a day passed that a violent skirmish didn’t break out on the street.

Rasul says people had no choice: If you didn’t join the Soviet army, you could be killed. But if you joined, the mujahideen might kill you. “We were always afraid,” says Rasul, now 50. “Anyone who could get out, did.” Rasul says he was never a fighter, but when the mujahideen emerged from their hideouts in the hills and came to town, his father would give them clothes, money, and food.

In 1985, Rasul came to the U.S., in part with the help of an American policy that aided the immigration of people who had been part of U.S.-backed anti-communist struggles. Two years later, Rasul took over Colony Fried Chicken, a storefront in the South Bronx, from another Afghani.

He applied for asylum, but didn’t get it until 1998, after the Taliban had come to power in Afghanistan. An immigration officer determined that because Rasul had supported the mujahideen, his life would be in danger in a Taliban-run state. After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. overthrew the Taliban regime and installed a former mujahideen fighter, Hamid Karzai, to lead the country’s transitional government.

Rasul opened his letter when he got back home after working the 12-hour shift he does six days a week. Like Karmakar, he learned that he was being denied a green card. The reason? His support of the mujahideen, which immigration officers deemed “terrorist activity.”

Rasul, struggling with English, tries to explain the letter’s twisted logic. Before, he had been rewarded for helping the mujahideen. “Now, mujahideen is terrorist?” he asks. “Is Mr. Karzai terrorist?”

Karmakar and Rasul weren’t alone. In February, a similar case had received national attention: The Washington Post profiled an Iraqi Kurd who had worked as a translator for the U.S. army, was granted a special visa to enter the U.S., but was then denied a green card.

And now, more information is surfacing about how many other people are caught in this strange catch-22. In September, the Department of Homeland Security—which oversees Immigration Services—told human rights advocates that about 400 people who had come to the U.S. from places around the world, and had been granted the protection of asylum or refugee status, were now being denied green cards because of information contained in their asylum applications.

In other words, these refugees from around the world were being denied green cards based on the same information that had won them asylum to begin with.

Many of the refugees had taken up arms against their leaders in U.S.-supported struggles: A Cuban who tried to overthrow the Castro regime was denied a green card for being a member of “a counterrevolutionary group”; others—such as members of the Democratic Unionist Party of Sudan, a partner in U.S. negotiations in the war-torn region—had been persecuted for their involvement in democratic opposition movements to dictatorial regimes; the Montagnards and the Hmong, who had fought for the U.S. during the Cold War, suddenly became terrorists—even though, just two months before, Congress had specifically issued a waiver for these ethnic groups.

Some people weren’t actually members of any political group at all: An Afghani in Long Island was denied a green card because he had noted on his asylum application, filed more than a decade prior, that he had “scrubbed pots and pans” for the mujahideen.

“People’s hearts were stopping,” says Anwen Hughes, senior counsel for Human Rights First. For days after the round of letters hit mailboxes around the country, she fielded nonstop calls from immigrants and their lawyers.

“These are law-abiding people who have been here for years,” says Melanie Nezer, an attorney with the refugee-rights group HIAS of America. “These are people we’ve already put through our procedures and our security clearances, and we decided that they had been persecuted. We gave them asylum and said, ‘Welcome to the United States.’ And now, our new law calls them terrorists, and we can’t figure out how to remove the label.”

Today, most of the people who received letters earlier this year are still in a kind of legal limbo. They’ve been put there by a government definition of “terrorism” that is so broad that it conflicts with other U.S. foreign policy priorities and, as a circuit court judge put it in 2006, “sweeps in not only the big guy, but also the little guy who poses no risk to anyone.”

Ironically, this circuit court judge’s decision was cited in Sachin Karmakar’s letter, as if someone in Immigration Services knew that what he was doing made little sense, but could do nothing about it.

Sachin Karmakar is in his tiny office below an East Village photocopy center. Stacks of Joy Bangla, a weekly newspaper that he started publishing last January, are piled up on the left corner of his desk, as are unopened envelopes containing letters from avid readers. Like many Bangladeshis, the small 57-year-old is a political junkie who reads about a dozen local newspapers each day.

Using a print shop owned by ultra-Orthodox Jews, Karmakar distributes about 2,000 copies each week and leaves them in the storefronts and restaurants of Jackson Heights. In addition to the standard rundown of community events and Bangladeshi politics, the pages of Joy Bangla are filled with information about a single topic: the evils of Muslim fundamentalism. Karmakar includes news briefs identifying the connections between senior Bangladeshi politicians and homegrown militant groups. He pens editorials encouraging the residents of Jackson Heights to do things like oppose the OPEC cartel (it funds terrorism) and stand up for the State of Israel (a bastion of democracy in an extremist region). Because of his views on terrorism, he has spoken on a panel sponsored by conservative think tank America’s Truth Forum with former CIA director James Woolsey.

Karmakar picks up the letter from Homeland Security and repeats the reasons given for his denial: He has “received military training”; he has “fought with the intention to cause death or serious bodily injury to the Pakistani army.” He is shocked: Apparently, those were terrorist acts.

“I was in a war zone. There was no place to be neutral,” he says. “I am being punished for exercising my God-given right to defend myself.” And he can’t understand why being a member of a group that had disbanded decades ago would disqualify him for a green card now. “For a person who has taken a stand against a barbaric form of fundamentalist Islam, it’s a pretty insulting letter to get,” he adds.

An ardent supporter of America and its institutions, Karmakar was looking forward to getting his green card and starting the process of becoming a citizen. Receiving the letter hasn’t dampened his faith in the country, but his first reaction, he admits, was to suspect that somehow Muslim fundamentalists had managed to sabotage the immigration process. He’s since changed his mind.

“This whole thing is just some mistake,” he says. But he doesn’t sound entirely sure about it.

The U.S. government’s definition of “terrorism” has always been broad. In the Immigration Act of 1990, terrorists were considered to be anyone who used a “firearm, explosive, or dangerous device” to “endanger the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property.”

After the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act and made the definition more complex, dividing terrorist groups into three categories. Tier I and Tier II are well-known terrorist groups, such as the FARC of Columbia, Al Qaeda, or the Taliban. The list of groups is available on a public State Department list.

Then, there are the Tier III “undesignated groups,” whose names are not listed anywhere. As Tier III is defined, any “two or more individuals . . . whether organized or not” can be considered a terrorist group, and Homeland Security has the right to make decisions about the groups in an ad hoc fashion. (Hughes, the Human Rights First attorney, points out that the definition is so loose that a victim of domestic violence who used a weapon against her attacker could qualify as a terrorist.) As Karmakar and Rasul discovered in February, some DHS officers at service centers in Nebraska and Texas decided that the Bengali Mukti and the mujahideen were Tier III terrorist groups.

The Tier III clause is only one part of the Patriot Act that has ended up causing major problems for people fleeing persecution: The law also says that anyone who provided a type of “material support” to a terrorist organization could be labeled a terrorist and be denied admission to the country on those grounds. This includes people who were forced to give support, such as a nurse from Colombia who was denied asylum because she had been kidnapped by paramilitary FARC guerillas who had forced her, at gunpoint, to give medical care to the wounded. In 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which made the Patriot Act even stricter: A person can now be deported for giving that kind of support.

After protests from human rights groups, Homeland Security decided last December that it would make an exception for people who were extorted by Tier I groups like the FARC (but not the Taliban or Al Qaeda, for some reason). But that leaves out cases like the one of a Sri Lankan man who was kidnapped by the Tamil Tigers and forced to pay a ransom, and who is now tied up in court on the grounds that he gave material support to a known terrorist organization.

“If this were really a national security concern, I would understand,” Nezer says. “But there’s not one person who thinks that any of these people are a threat. Not even [Homeland Security]. If they did, they would be charging and arresting them.”

Advocates say the piecemeal approach—by which people are charged with terrorism and then, when they protest it, are told that the government will go back and look to see if a mistake was made—is bogging down the entire immigration system. They say the obsession with definitions is having real human consequences: Individuals being persecuted by their governments are barred from entering the country as refugees. And people like Karmakar and Rasul, who haven’t seen family members in years, cannot bring them to the U.S. or visit them without hurdles. For the first time since moving to America, Karmakar says he felt his rights were being threatened in a way that reminded him of what happened to him back in Bangladesh.

Just over a year ago, a high-level DHS official, Igor Timofeyev, promised Congress that the problems with refugees and asylees would be resolved “in three weeks.”

“I honestly thought this would take a couple months to iron out,” explains Nezer, who started advocating against the broadened definitions of terrorism four years ago. “But it’s gotten more and more absurd, and the number of groups just keeps growing.”

For Ali Riaz, a Bangladeshi expert at Illinois State University, Karmakar’s so-called mistake is going to have serious consequences for foreign policy. “If part of the U.S. government is describing what happened in 1971 as a terrorist act, it is going to be a major issue in Bangladesh,” he says. “It’s practically questioning the very existence of Bangladesh and compromising the relationship with the third-largest Muslim country in the world. If Georgians fought back from Russia, would the U.S. government call it a terrorist act? Because the same thing happened 30 years ago in Bangladesh. If Homeland Security thinks there is no repercussion for this outside the United States, they are living in a fool’s paradise.”

Responding to protests and congressional testimony from human rights organizations, in December 2007, Congress voted to give Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff the authority to make exceptions for some groups that were getting caught in the categories. The exceptions were arbitrary: The Hmong and some anti-Castro fighters were included in the July waiver; mujahideen were not. Homeland Security reports that it has issued waivers to around 7,500 people, many of whom only got the waivers after they had already been denied green cards or asylum because of their supposed terrorist activity.

Then, in February, DHS sent out a blast of letters to people who were already refugees and asylees.

In April, the government agreed to reopen the cases. In July, 10 more groups got exceptions, and the government admitted that the majority of people who got letters would have been eligible for them. In September, advocates met with high-level officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of Homeland Security. Nezer, who was present at the meeting, which was attended by around 20 people, says officials told her the cases were still held up and that there was no foreseeable end in sight. She says that officials in Immigration Services appear to understand the problem, and she suspects that the stalemate is coming directly from higher levels in the refugee policy department of Homeland Security.

“We have to make sure that our national security interests are at the forefront of everything we do, but we are committed to keeping our asylum and refugee processing system open for the intended purpose that it was instated, and that our humanitarian concerns and the goodwill of this nation will move forward,” says Chris Rhatigan, USCIS spokeswoman. Asked whether these two purposes have ever been at odds, Rhatigan said that wasn’t the case, but added that the government must err on the side of caution.

When questioned as to whether the government didn’t already have the information needed to judge affiliations prior to denying green cards to hundreds of people, Rhatigan explained that the process involves discussions with the State Department. (Partha Mazumdar, a State Department expert on Bangladesh, says that the United States has never considered the Mukti Bahini to be a terrorist organization.)

“We’re told that making decisions about these groups is a very long and difficult process,” Nezer says. “For the Montagnard waiver, they told us, in meeting after meeting, ‘This is very complicated.’ And then when the waiver comes out, it’s a paragraph long.”

Nezer believes that the problem is much simpler than the government admits and could easily be solved—the new Obama administration could fix things in less than a month, if it wants to.

Mohammed Rasul is serving fried chicken to his customers in the South Bronx. They stream in steadily throughout the day—high-schoolers on their lunch break, moms, older folk lounging around the sidewalk. Mostly everyone is African-American. They order from a menu that is displayed along the wall and organized into sections: chicken nuggets, chicken combo, chicken breast, and just chicken.

“I used to have a people problem, but now I have a government problem,” says Rasul, 50. He serves the chicken in paper boxes with American flag decorations, passing it under a Plexiglas wall that divides the tidy kitchen from the waiting area on the other side of the counter. By “people problem,” he’s referring to when he first took over the restaurant, when drug dealers would loiter in front of the store and often toss beer bottles into the windows. When the word “Taliban” came into the American vocabulary, people called him that, too. But now, he feels he has won the neighborhood’s trust. He knows many customers’ orders by heart, and if an order takes too long in the kitchen, he’ll usually throw an extra piece of chicken into the box. He belongs to a union and wakes up early to take his kids to a special-education elementary school in Queens.

Since he received his letter from Homeland Security, he says, his nerves are shot. “I don’t know what’s going on with that American government. You’re thinking I’m terrorist? Where is your witness, and where is your proof? Is it only because my name is Mohammed and my religion is Muslim? I swear I don’t know who is Osama. I heard about him on TV.”

He sits down for a short break between customers. “I work too hard in this country. I’m tired from my life.”

Unlike Karmakar, it took Rasul 10 years of working through the immigration system to obtain asylum. Now, it seems as if he is starting all over again.

“Who is the big man in America who decided this?” asks Rasul. “Where is he so that he can look at me face-to-face? I want him to look in my heart and tell me that I am a criminal.”