On Thursday morning, Omar Ameen appeared, clad in a red jumpsuit and via remote video, in an initial removal hearing to confront some of the most serious charges that a potential deportee can face. The Department of Homeland Security contends that Ameen, an Uber driver and father of four, is in fact a leading member of a feared ISIS hit squad, and that he murdered a police officer in his native Iraq before lying on his refugee application about his terrorist connections in an elaborate plot to gain admission into the United States.
The fact that each of those accusations was obliterated in federal court just last month is, to the Department of Homeland Security at least, of little consequence.
Ameen’s hearing, conducted remotely, is the latest installment in a three-year saga of a man who sought freedom and safety in the West, only to become the victim of what his legal team calls an attempted frame job by a crooked Iraqi militia leader with an ancestral grudge and financial incentive to lie—and of the Trump administration’s fervent desire to justify ending the nation’s refugee program for good.
Now, years after he was first arrested on bogus charges, the 47-year-old is still being held in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention on those same charges, facing removal to a country where his chief accuser has vowed to have him executed.
“There is just a level of insanity from the government on this case that is just remarkable, given that they’ve pursued a lie and don’t seem to recognize it,” said Rachelle Barbour, Ameen’s federal defender in his now-dismissed extradition case. Barbour likened ICE’s decision to detain Ameen “Trumpian,” part of an institutional legacy of hostility to due process in the immigration system that she had hoped would end with the Biden administration.
“We are back doing this again, as if we have not tread all this ground? As if they have learned nothing?” Barbour said. “I totally understood this under Trump. But how are we doing this again? Aren’t they ashamed of themselves?”
Ameen grew up, like his parents and grandparents before him, in the village of Rawah in northwestern Iraq. Even before the U.S. invasion and the subsequent civil war, Rawah was a place where grudges lasted for generations, and where guilt-by-blood-association could be enough to threaten your life. Ameen’s own father had been murdered by al Qaeda and his brother had been kidnapped by a Shiite militia, according to his application for refugee status. Fearing increasing threats from enemies of a cousin affiliated with al Qaeda, Ameen left Iraq in 2012.
He initially entered Turkey on a tourist visa, then began the refugee application process for himself, his wife Khansaa, and his three young children. Ameen’s application, which like all potential refugees included a thorough background check, was eventually approved, and in November 2014, his family was resettled in the United States—five out of 69,975 people who were admitted that year.
The family moved from Utah, the location of their initial resettlement, to Sacramento, joining a growing Iraqi diaspora in northern California. Ameen became an Uber driver and part-time mechanic, and he and Khansaa had a fourth child as they both pursued green cards to obtain permanent resident status in the United States.
But on Aug. 15, 2018, their lives were upended. Dozens of FBI agents swarmed the family’s home, and Ameen was arrested on charges of murdering Ihsan Jasim, a former Iraqi police officer, in his hometown of Rawah. The Iraqi government was seeking Ameen’s extradition in order to try him for the murder, a crime witnessed by the victim’s nephew, known in court documents only as “Person Five.”
Person Five, according to DOJ filings reviewed by The Daily Beast, alleged that Ameen was a Tom Clancy-esque terrorist mastermind: a member of al Qaeda in Iraq, a close friend of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the commander of a hit squad that had terrorized Rawah for months.
The claims were facially ludicrous—not least because Ameen and his family were living in Turkey at the time the murder was allegedly committed. Despite ironclad alibis placing him in another country, Person Five claimed that Ameen had actually left Turkey in the middle of his refugee application process. Ameen then allegedly traversed 600 miles of war-torn Syria and the deserts of Al Anbar, climbed the ranks of an ISIS militia without being spotted by residents of a village he’d lived in since birth, murdered Ihsan Jasim, and then returned to the Turkish coast just in time to be resettled in the United States.
Person Five’s accusations did not exist in a vacuum, however. The teenager, who suffered from a self-described “psychological condition,” which he discussed with FBI agents in Iraq, lived in the home of Colonel Abd al-Jabbar Barzan, a leader in a local militia who accepted payments in exchange for furnishing evidence against supposed terrorists—and whose family had feuded with Ameen’s for decades over an alleged dispute that led to Barzan’s family being expelled from the community.
At the time of his arrest, Ameen had no idea how specious the evidence against him was—that his accusers were demonstrably crooked, vengeful or simply manipulated, and that credulous U.S. investigators had taken blatantly flawed evidence at face value. All he knew was that the supposed murder took place when he was two countries away.
Ameen was so convinced that the charges were a mistake that he didn’t even kiss his family goodbye before being taken into custody.
“He’s never been able to hug or kiss them since,” Barbour said.
Ameen’s arrest made headlines around the world, with the help of Trump-era Department of Justice press releases that made him out to be a borderline supervillain brought down by the departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security. The notion of a wanted murderer and ISIS terrorist slipping through the cracks of the refugee admissions process added legitimacy to Trump’s long-held view that allowing refugees—particularly Muslims—into the United States amounted to welcoming a Trojan horse into the country.
One month after Ameen’s arrest, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the government was slashing the cap on refugees allowed into the country by a third, to 30,000 people—a decision that Pompeo linked directly to Ameen’s arrest.
“This year, we have seen evidence that the system previously in place was defective,” Pompeo said in September 2018. “It allowed a foreign national to slip through who was later discovered to be a member of ISIS, as well as other individuals with criminal backgrounds. The American people must have complete confidence that everyone granted resettlement in our country is thoroughly vetted. The security checks take time, but they’re critical.”
It didn’t take much time for Ameen’s public defense team to do their own security checks, however. But despite the obvious holes in the case for Ameen’s extradition to Iraq—where Barzan had vowed to try him for murder himself—the standards for freeing him were higher than a typical criminal trial. It wouldn’t be enough to demonstrate reasonable doubt: Ameen’s legal team would have to legally obliterate (the actual legal term) the government’s case.
“We had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not commit this crime,” Barbour said. “You have to obliterate probable cause, and almost no one has ever been found to obliterate probable cause. And we did.”
It took more than two years—and aggressive press coverage of the supposed evidence behind his arrest, led by the New Yorker—but Ameen’s team was able to obtain cellphone records showing that he was in Turkey at the time of Jasim’s murder. In his order declining extradition, Judge Edmund F. Brennan, chief magistrate judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, called the defense’s evidence “decisive on the most salient point: Ameen was in Turkey, not Iraq, on the day of the murder.”
“Unless there are pending domestic charges on which the government can justify Ameen’s continued detention, it is ordered that Omar Abdulsatar Ameen be immediately released from custody,” Brennan wrote on April 21. “At the time of writing, the court has not been made aware of any such pending charges.”
But unbeknownst to Brennan, ICE had filed a “notice to appear” on the day that Ameen was arrested in 2018, charging him with visa fraud for “willfully misrepresenting a material fact” in his refugee application—namely, that he had never been affiliated with a terrorist group or committed a crime overseas. That case was effectively frozen during Ameen’s extradition proceedings, but was unfrozen when Brennan sought to release him.
Now, Ameen must fight the same charges he just defeated, or be deported back to Iraq, where his legal team fears he faces almost certain death at the hands of Barzan and his affiliates.
In a statement, ICE declared simply that Ameen was charged “based on misrepresentations on applications for admission,” and that he is “in ICE custody pending removal proceedings.”
The burden of proof is now on the government, and Ameen’s legal team “will be vehemently contesting everything that has been submitted” by the Department of Homeland Security against him, as Siobhan Waldron, Ameen’s immigration attorney, told the immigration judge on Thursday.
But immigration proceedings—“death penalty cases in a traffic court setting,” as the head of the immigration judges’ union once quipped—can take months. Ameen’s next hearing won’t be until late July, almost three years to the day since he was arrested on bogus charges.
“It just feels like corruption, all the way down,” Barbour said, “and I’m sorry to say that because I was really hoping for more from this administration.”