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EXCLUSIVE: Jailed Houston Imam Zoubir Bouchikhi Speaks from Private Immigration Prison

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We look at the case of Sheikh Zoubir Bouchikhi, who has been held without bail at a private immigration prison in Houston for the past four months. Bouchikhi, a native of Algeria, has lived in the United States for the past eleven years and has four children, three of them American-born citizens. In 2007, he received notice that the US Citizenship and Immigration Services had denied his application for permanent residency status. He was arrested by immigration authorities in December 2008. He has been held without bail ever since. He speaks from immigration jail in his first national broadcast interview. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re here in Austin, Texas, as we end today’s show by looking at the case of Sheikh Zoubir Bouchikhi, who has been held without bail at a private immigration prison in Houston for the past four months.

Imam Zoubir, as he’s known, is a native of Algeria, has lived in the United States for the past eleven years. He has four children, three of them American-born citizens. He first came to the United States in 1998 on a student visa. He earned a master’s degree in Islamic Studies, then moved to Houston, where he applied for a religious worker visa and was hired in 2001 by the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, or ISGH, a coalition of mosques and schools . Since then, he has served as the spiritual leader of the Abu Bakr Siddqui in southeast Houston.

In 2003, Imam Zoubir applied for permanent residency status as a religious minister. He also applied for his wife and the couple’s oldest child, who was born outside the country. In 2007, the family received a notice that the US Citizenship and Immigration Services had denied their application. They appealed, but the appeal was rejected in November of 2008. A month later, immigration officials arrested him at his home and led him away in handcuffs in front of his wife and children. He has been held without bail ever since. The case has angered many in the local Houston community, who are rallying to support him with letter-writing campaigns, petitions and websites.

A few days ago, I had a chance to interview Imam Zoubir. He called in from the private immigration prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America, where he is being held. This is his first national broadcast interview. I began by asking him to explain why he’s being held.

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: I am here because the ICE is charging me with arriving alien. And I am denied bond, because I am under that category, called “arriving alien,” although I have been here in the United States legally for eleven years.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe how you were arrested? Did you have any warning? What are the reasons that they are giving you now? And have you had a hearing since you were jailed?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Yes. The way I was detained, ICE officers came to my home around 6:30 in the morning, and they were waiting for me, because they knew I was at the mosque leading the morning prayer. And they detained me in front of my children, while coming back to the house, and my wife kindly requested them that “Let his children please give him a hug before you take him.” And my hands were handcuffed behind my back, and still they refused even a hug to their father.

    I have — I met — I had the chance to be in front of Judge Benton, who belongs to the immigration circle, but they completely refused to give me a bond or to let me go on my recognizance. And this is where I am.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your own family? How old are your children?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: OK. My oldest son is twelve years old, and his younger brother is ten years old. I have another daughter who is eight years old and another daughter who is almost two years old.

    AMY GOODMAN: Are you able to see them?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Yes, I am able, but behind the — between — I cannot see them directly; there is glass between me and them.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your work in the mosque of Houston?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Sure. I am an imam here in Houston, Texas. I lead a congregation of almost 700 people in my mosque, which is called the Masjid Abu Bakr in the southeast of Houston. I belong to an organization called the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, which is my employer.

    And I do teach my community several things, such as, for example, I counsel them, I perform marriages, I perform funerals, funerals and burials, I teach the children values and ethics. I’m very deeply involved in interfaith dialogue and comparative studies. I work with Christian churches, synagogues. I work with the Interfaith Ministries here in Houston. We do provide food for the hungry, such as Meals on Wheels.

    And I’m deeply involved in many other activities, such as speaking against injustice, speaking against the war in Iraq. And I think that these are some of my problems, how I’m perceived by the authorities.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: I do think that they are just punishing me for helping people and speaking against injustice.

    AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a Houston Chronicle piece of March 6th, and it is quoting an attorney for the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, saying that “In 2007, the family received a notice that USCIS revoked the [Islamic Society of Greater Houston]’s petition and denied Bouchikhi’s request for permanent residency.” Your request.

    “According to Cowan, the government said ISGH,” the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, “had failed to prove Bouchikhi had been continuously employed for the two years prior to filing of its petition and had not demonstrated its ability to pay Bouchikhi’s salary.

    “The government also questioned why ISGH had not proved Bouchikhi was an imam by submitting a formal certificate of ordination.”

    Can you respond to those points?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Yes. I’m glad you brought that, Ms. Goodman. Actually, every issue mentioned by the USCIS in its letter of notice of intent to revoke on January the 16th, 2007, and I have received this letter three-and-a-half years after my approval of the I-360. Three-and-a-half years. It has been fully addressed. Everything mentioned in that letter has been fully addressed by my attorney and by my employer, and all documents requested were made available on February the 15th, 2007. So, we were like perplexed by this statement and this allegation that we didn’t have enough documents. Still, we went and gave them everything, everything they asked.

    The concerns raised by the USCIS have changed at each stage. Each stage, the USCIS sent us a letter. Each time, there is what we call a change of arguments. So we knew that they were not really trying to help me, because each time we answered their letters, they come up with something new.

    AMY GOODMAN: That issue of a certificate of ordination?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Mm-hmm. Oh, yeah. We, in Islam, we don’t have an ordination, unlike maybe Catholicism or other faiths, where a religious leader is given something by a higher authority. In Islam, we go by the amount of knowledge that the person has in this field of Islamic studies. So, having two master’s degrees in Islamic studies, I am fully qualified to be an imam. And we have given them everything.

    AMY GOODMAN: Are you acting as an imam in the detention center? Are you leading prayers?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Yes, yes, yes. I’m leading the prayer. I’m counseling the inmates. I’m even talking to non-Muslims, helping them with their problems. And we are being discriminated against even here inside the CCA.


    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: OK. For example, there was a huge problem about the kufi that I use, which is a head cover. Forty-nine days after my detention, there was no problem. After forty-nine days, they raised this problem, and they told me that “You need to take it off. You have no right to walk in the hallways with it.” And I told them, even in Guantanamo the detainees have the right to wear their headscarf if they want, their head covers if they want. And I didn’t keep quiet. I took it to the higher authorities here, and they finally accepted that I use it with a pass.

    AMY GOODMAN: So you’re in a prison, in a detention center that is run by a private corporation, by the —-

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Private corporation, yes.

    AMY GOODMAN: —- Corrections Corporation of America. What are the conditions in the jail?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Well, we had encountered so many difficulties. For example, Ms. Amy, they do not allow more than thirty-four detainees to perform their obligatory prayers Friday, although we have over fifty detainees here who are Muslims. And although the Constitution of the United States gives every right to any group to perform their religious duties, they don’t want to give us more than thirty-four, under the pretext of capacity. And when we told them, “OK, give us a bigger place or space,” they are not really helping.

    AMY GOODMAN: Have you had a hearing since you’ve been jailed —-


    AMY GOODMAN: —- on December 17th? Was this on April 13th?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: It was December the 17th.

    AMY GOODMAN: You were jailed on December 17th. When was your hearing?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: My hearing was April the 13th.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: I went in front of Judge Benton, and he heard the arguments of my attorney, as well as the DA, and he said that he would give his final verdict on May the 14th.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what are they weighing right now? Are you facing deportation at this point?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: I don’t know what honestly goes in his mind.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your children are American citizens?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Yes, they are. Three of my children are US citizens. They were born here in Houston, Texas.

    AMY GOODMAN: In 2003, the Islamic Society of Greater Houston filed a petition on your behalf for permanent residency as a religious minister?


    AMY GOODMAN: That was what? Six years ago. What happened?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Yeah. Since 2003, October 2003, I have been waiting for my green card, and suddenly, in January 2007, I received a letter of intent to revoke. When we answered completely and fully that the allegations or the documents that they needed, a month later, they gave me a letter of revocation. When I appealed, again the arguments changed. We appealed to the AAO in Washington. They seemed to agree with every answer we gave, yet they went with the Texas Service Center’s decision, and they dismissed my appeal. It was November the 5th, 2008.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, what is the next step? The final decision?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Yeah, the final decision, we are waiting for the judge, Judge Benton, to give his decision, and we will see if it’s in our favor, and thanks God; if it is not, then thanks God again, but we’re going to appeal it to the BIA.

    AMY GOODMAN: The Bureau —-


    AMY GOODMAN: —- of Immigration Affairs.

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Immigration Appeals, yes.

    AMY GOODMAN: Of Bureau of Immigration Appeals.

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: The Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia.

    AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response outside the jail, where you are in the Greater Houston community?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Well, I thank — I take this opportunity to thank each and every man, woman, young children, everybody, Muslim, non-Muslims, who stood up by me and by my family, knowing that this is an injustice done to a human being, to a family. They are punishing me and punishing my family, punishing my community, just for who I am. So I thank them. It was tremendous support. They came to the court. And they were not allowed, unfortunately, to enter the courtroom.


    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: I don’t know. I don’t know. They said only ten people can come, and then later on they changed their mind.

    AMY GOODMAN: I was reading the Houston Chronicle piece about your youngest daughter, your wife not wanting to bring her to the jail to see you. Have you seen her?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Yes, I did. Finally, I told her that things are going to go along, just bring her. And when she came in, it was heartbreaking. She was like trying to kiss me through the glass.

    AMY GOODMAN: What are your final thoughts in this interview? What would you like people to understand in this country about your situation?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: I just want them to know that I am really surprised that this is happening in the Obama administration time, although it started in the Bush administration. Every problem that I’m facing and my family and my community are facing started in the Bush administration, but it is continuing. And we really wanted change, and we were hoping for change, but I don’t see it. I don’t see it.

    And they are denying me — by the way, they gave me a bond after ninety days. DHS gave me a bond, and they did not honor it until today. They gave me the bond on March the 17th. And just like that, they did not, when a friend of mine, a dear friend of mine, went to pay the bond, which was $20,000 — I mean, they are bonding out criminals. I have no criminal history whatsoever. I have never committed even a misdemeanor in my life. And they did not even honor what they have given me.

    AMY GOODMAN: They revoked the bond when it was —-

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: No, they didn’t even -— they didn’t even send me a letter or anything to say that it’s revoked. Just verbally, they said, “We are not going to give it to you.”

    AMY GOODMAN: When you say they are punishing you for who you are, what do you mean?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: I mean, I strongly believe that I am targeted because of my political views, especially I was against the war in Iraq, against bombing innocent civilians in Lebanon in 2006, and for my clear stance that I am pro-democracy and values that this country was founded on. And they don’t want for somebody who is free-minded and outspoken.

    AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. And finally, your message to your own children — when they come to see you, do they ask you why you’re behind glass, why you’re in jail?

    SHEIKH ZOUBIR BOUCHIKHI: Yes, yes. Like my third child, Bushra, who is eight years old, she keeps telling me, “Why, Daddy? Why are you here? Why don’t you come home?” And I say, “It’s not yet time, my daughter.” She said she thinks I am actually — for three months, she thought I was in a conference, because she’s used that I travel for conferences. And she said, “This time, you took long time.” Then, when her mother brought her to the detention center, she was crying, and she told me, “Why are you staying here? This is not your place.” I said, “I know, my daughter. But I’m coming very soon.”

    And they decorated the home, by the way, on the 18th of March. They decorated the home. They bought balloons. They bought a sign, “Welcome, Daddy.” And their father didn’t come, just because DHS didn’t honor its bond.

AMY GOODMAN: Sheikh Zoubir Bouchikhi, speaking to us from the private detention facility he has been detained at for the last four months in Houston.

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