U.S. Government Blocks Citizens' Return Home

Federal officials are preventing a Pakistani-American father and son from returning to their home in California. Officials want the two U.S. citizens to take a polygraph test before allowing their return home. The case raises constitutional questions.

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Two Pakistani-Americans, both U.S. citizens, are waiting to hear if the FBI will let them return to their home here in California. They've been stuck in Pakistan since April. That's when authorities said they couldn't fly home unless they agreed to answer some questions while strapped to a lie detector. The father and son have refused, saying they're afraid to trust the interrogators.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: More than four years ago, Muhammed Ismail, a naturalized American, took his son Jaber to Pakistan for intensive study of the Koran. When they attempted to return to the United States last April, U.S. officials stopped them at the airport in Islamabad. That's where the Ismails learned they were on Homeland Security's no-fly list. Eighteen-year-old Jaber Ismail, speaking on a cell phone from outside Islamabad, says he and his father were stunned.

Mr. JABER ISMAIL (American citizen, Islamabad, Pakistan): My dad thought - like he was shocked. He goes, why is this happening to us? And I was crying in the airport - I was - I miss my mom.

GONZALES: Unlike his father, Jaber Ismail was born in the United States. He says he had been looking forward to returning to Lodi, California, where he recalls playing basketball and American football as a boy. Instead he found himself being questioned by the FBI at the American embassy in Islamabad.

Mr. ISMAIL: He told me the reason that why we're on the no-fly list and the reason was that in the emergency contact number, we wrote our uncle's name, you know, Umer Hayat.

GONZALES: That name, Umer Hayat, was a red flag to U.S. officials. Earlier this year, Hayat and his son were involved in a high-profile terrorism case in Lodi, California. The son, Hamid Hayat, was convicted of attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. If U.S. authorities think Jaber attended that same camp, they're aren't saying. But the FBI has told him he can only go home to California if he takes a polygraph test.

That prompted the ACLU to get involved. Attorney Julia Harumi Mass says the Ismails, as American citizens, have the right to remain silent wherever they are.

Ms. JULIA HARUMI MASS (Attorney, ACLU): So what the government has essentially done is condition the exercise of their right to be in their home country on the waiver of other very important constitutional rights.

GONZALES: A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Sacramento declined to comment on the case, except to confirm that the Ismails have been given the opportunity to meet with the FBI in Pakistan and answer a few questions and they have declined.

NPR contacted the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI. No office or department would comment on the case.

But one expert on aviation security asks a question raised by many - do U.S. authorities have the right to keep U.S. citizens from reentering the country without charging them with a crime? Mike Barr is the director of Aviation Safety and Security at USC.

Mr. MIKE BARR (University of Southern California): I think this is a precedence setting case. You know, just how far can Department of Homeland Security go in restricting a U.S. citizen's travel without justifying that restriction.

GONZALES: In the meantime, there are signs that U.S. officials are having second thoughts about keeping the Ismails out. Just days ago, the Department of Homeland Security sent them a letter indicating that the Ismails' records and the decision to deny them permission to return home were being reevaluated.

For now, they remain in Pakistan, waiting for some word on when or if they will be allowed to return to California.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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