When she was arrested on Oct. 22, Rasmieh Odeh had been an American citizen since 2004. The charge? Lying on her naturalization application.
Odeh, a Palestinian-born activist, associate director of the Chicago-based Arab American Action Network, and recipient of the 2013 Oustanding Community Leader Award from the Chicago Cultural Alliance, was accused of omitting the 10 years she had spent detained in an Israeli prison from her application.
According to the federal indictment against her in a federal court in Michigan, she did not disclose that she had been a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government, and had been convicted in a military court for her alleged involvement in a 1968 bombing Israeli authorities say was organized by the PFLP.
Odeh, now 65 and a prominent member of the Arab-American community in Chicago, said she was tortured before being convicted of taking part in the bombing. Odeh, who lives in Evergreen Park, is free on bond.
Key figures in the Arab-American and anti-war community jumped to organize a defense campaign for Odeh as soon as she was arrested, saying the immigration charges were politically motivated for her work as an outspoken critic of American policy in the Middle East.
But one question has stumped both her lawyer and members of the defense campaign: What prompted Immigration and Customs Enforcement to take another look into her naturalization application nine years after she became a citizen?
James Fennerty, a member of Odeh’s defense counsel, said he can only guess at why she was arrested. But, he said, she has never hidden her time spent imprisoned in Israel. “I have known [Odeh] since 1984,” he said. “She is an activist, she speaks her mind, and she is not afraid to talk about what happened to her.”
Though he can’t say for certain, Fennerty points to documents recently revealed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California that may hold a clue to the ‘why now’ question around Odeh’s case.
According to the report, applications for citizenship from Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities are routinely delayed and denied “without legal authority” under a program called the “Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program” (CARRP). The previously unknown program, revealed by the ACLU in August 2013, is meant to look for “national security concerns” in Middle Easter and Muslim communities. But it does this by relying on “error-ridden and overbroad watch-list systems and security checks; and religious, national origin and associational profiling,” the report said.
Fennerty said it’s possible that this program could be used to review the applications of individuals who are already citizens – but we just don’t know yet. “It could be used, it seems to me, for people who already applied for citizenship and became citizens,” he said. “The work she has done singles her out.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit did not respond to requests for comment. But a statement released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the day of her arrest , said Odeh would not have been naturalized if authorities had known she was convicted of taking part in a terrorist attack. If convicted, Odeh would be stripped of her citizenship and face 10 years in prison.
This isn’t the first time that Odeh’s circle of activists has faced FBI scrutiny. In the fall of 2010, 23 anti-war and pro-Palestinian activists in Chicago and Minneapolis had their homes raided by FBI agents looking for connections between the activists and groups in Colombia and the Middle East.
One of the people whose home was raided is Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of the Arab American Action Network and head of Odeh’s defense campaign.
“The main thing that everybody [who has been contacted by the FBI] has in common is that they do Palestine support work,” said Abudayyeh. “There are legal and political attacks on the people in this country who are trying to change U.S. policy towards Palestine.”