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USA Basu: Hung Out To Dry By The FBI?


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Since December, a Des Moines man has been in the Hardin County jail awaiting deportation to India.

That’s despite the fact that he entered the United States legally; is a lawful permanent U.S. resident and has been married 14 years to an American woman; that the 2001 crime for which he is being removed was supposed to have been expunged from his record; and that he says he worked for seven years as an informant for the U.S. government in its war on terror.

He says FBI agents promised him U.S. citizenship in return, but now have turned their backs on him.

Arvinder Singh, 42, says that since 2003, he supplied the FBI in Des Moines information on possible Muslim extremists who preached hatred of the United States. He says he assumed a fake identity and religion, wore wiretaps and infiltrated meetings at his own risk.

His story is supported by his wife, Alice, who says she was on a first name basis with at least three FBI agents who came to their house regularly, along with Des Moines police officers and once a CIA agent. She offered descriptions and recounted conversations she had with them and says she served them soft drinks.

Singh’s lawyer, Michael Said, backs his claims, saying he has spoken to two of the agents Singh worked with. A relative with whom Singh owned a liquor store also says he had knowledge of Singh’s work with the FBI.

If this is true, then Singh is a victim of duplicity by agents who used him and then, as his lawyer puts it, “threw to the wolves.”

An FBI spokeswoman in Omaha said she could not comment on Singh’s assertions. Sandra Breault said the agency doesn’t publicly disclose if someone was ever an informant. But she said FBI policies prevent promising anyone either immunity from prosecution or anything else regarding their immigration status in exchange for cooperation.

But Singh’s lawyer, an immigration specialist, says FBI agents have offered similar deals to other clients he’s had and then reneged on them, too.

Singh’s story, as he and his backers tell it, begins in August 2001 when the native of India, who came here on a business visa, was working as a $7.50-an-hour sales clerk at a Des Moines gas station convenience store. He said he had been there only three weeks when he was arrested and charged with selling a large quantity of cough medicines containing ephedrine there.

Ephedrine is considered a “precursor substance” used to make illegal drugs. It’s a felony to sell a precursor substance knowing or intending it to be used to make a controlled substance. Singh says he knew nothing and was just selling it the way the store’s owner did.

During the three months Singh was in jail, 9/11 happened and the country was in a panic about foreigners, especially from the Middle East and South Asia, many of whom were being rounded up for arrest or deportation.

Singh said his lawyer at the time warned him that if he pleaded not guilty and went to trial, a white jury might not look kindly on him. He also had little money for a court fight, so he took a plea bargain. He pleaded guilty to an aggravated felony, paid a fine, did 120 hours of community service and received two years of probation. The judgment was deferred and the offense was supposed to be wiped from his record, says Said.

Foreign defendants often take a plea even if they did not commit the crime just to avoid prison, says Said. They are not informed that doing so could result in deportation or denial of citizenship.

The following year, Singh says, he was visited at home by FBI agents who knew of his troubles with the law. “They said to me, ‘You look Middle Eastern. We need your help in the war against Americans.’ ”

He said an agent “promised me citizenship” in return for his help.

“If I be a (bad) person, they not come to get my help,” he said in broken English.

He was told to infiltrate meetings where radical Muslims might be plotting against America. He was given a fake name and a checkbook to write checks the FBI could trace to see if money was being funneled to terrorist activities. He had to learn Muslim prayers because he is Sikh, not Muslim.

Singh said he did not always know what resulted from his reports, but they led to at least some arrests. Given what we know about heavy-handed FBI infiltration of Drake University meetings during that time, it’s possible the people Singh was investigating were going about legitimate business and exercising free-speech rights.

But he insists, “I didn’t do any bad thing to innocent people.”

He says he was paid $200 a month initially, which went up to $1,000, but in 2009, one of the agents told him there was no more money to pay him. He said he worked for a time without pay, including at least once last year.

He says agents took all his immigration papers and regularly assured him they would apply for citizenship on his behalf and that he shouldn’t do so himself. “He always told me, ‘I can call this man and get you citizenship,’ ” he said of one agent, who has since retired.

Singh said he got nothing in writing but believed them: “How could they lie to you?”

But Said says he’s seeing it “all the time” that federal or state investigation agents approach foreigners — particularly Latinos, Indians or Middle Easterners — seeking their help and then throw them “to the sharks.”

Singh said the FBI agents twice brought agents from the Department of Homeland Security to his house to witness money exchanges.

After time had passed and nothing seemed to have been done about the citizenship application, Singh said he decided to apply on his own. On the application, he truthfully answered that he had been convicted of a crime, though his lawyer says it was expunged and doesn’t turn up in a court records search. That triggered his December arrest by immigration agents.

Singh says everyone he’d dealt with already knew of his conviction: “Des Moines police knew it. FBI knew it. Immigration knew it. Homeland Security knew it.”

After his arrest, he kept thinking one of those people would come and get him out. “I’m really thinking they lied to me,” he said. “They cheated me.”

Said says he spoke to FBI agents Singh worked with, and they said they didn’t promise, but told him they would support him in seeking citizenship and request that any deportation be waived. But when Said sought their help after Singh was detained, he says one told him he’s retired now, and another said it’s too complicated.

“If they make a promise to somebody, it is for me almost like a contract,” says Said.

According to Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, the felony conviction makes Simgh ineligible for citizenship, but Said says there are always loopholes. Though immigration laws are not the jurisdiction of the FBI, they are enforced “at the discretion of the U.S. attorney general,” says Said, who claims if the FBI approached Immigration and Customs Enforcement, that agency would listen.

Then there’s this Catch-22: Said tried to seek a post-conviction relief appeal for Singh, but the judge said a deferred judgment isn’t considered a conviction so it doesn’t show up and cannot be overturned.

“It’s absolutely positively ludicrous,” said Said. “It doesn’t exist, except for immigration.”

Unable to work since December, Singh has lost his home, his car and the liquor store he owned with a cousin. His wife still lives in their east-side house though it’s in foreclosure and has no running water or electricity. His father in India died while he was in detention, for which he blames himself.

He’s lost 42 pounds in jail and worries about his wife. It’s a far cry from the American dream he came to pursue — working hard to build a business and a home.

He said he’s led a clean life. “I never even smoke a cigarette in my life.”

In February a judge ordered him deported. He watched the hearing from the jail on a closed-circuit TV. Part of the legacy of 9/11, says Said, is that people slated for deportation can no longer even explain their circumstances to the judge, who just looks at a guilty plea.

Singh’s appeal was dismissed, and he will be removed indefinitely, Neudauer said.

Singh wonders how things went so wrong when he did everything he was told to. “They were very happy with me. They said every time, ‘Excellent job.’ ”

He wipes tears from his eyes as his wife sobs. They lay hands across the jail’s glass partition as she prays.

“He has been punished; he served his time,” says his lawyer. “He helped our country. He put his neck on the line. And for that, they’re going to throw him out.”

We’re supposed to trust the government. If its agents are deceptive, we all have a problem. Singh’s case is a wake-up call on many levels. People in vulnerable positions because of their records or visa status are easy prey for exploitation. But you would expect the government to be protecting them, not doing the the exploiting. How many more cases like this take place under the radar?

Assuming all this is true --— and there’s good reason to believe it is — a man whose main mistake was being too trusting has been done a grave disservice. The government can and must make it right.

rekha Basurbasu@dmreg.com




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