First Call for Freedom
Sohail Mohammed had little experience with immigrant detention issues before 9/11. But how could he turn his back on his people?
Published in 2006 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
on March 20, 2006
Updated on March 18, 2011
Sohail Mohammed has a map of the world in his office. On it, colored pins mark the native countries of his clients. After spending more than a decade handling citizenship and immigration issues, the map is nearly covered.
“I wish I could add arrows,” says Mohammed, an immigrant himself who keeps an American flag in the pencil holder on his desk. “Then you would see that they are all pointing one way — to the U.S. You don’t see very many arrows going back out.”
You do now. Since 9/11, much of Mohammed’s work is about helping immigrants, particularly Muslims, get out of the country as soon as possible, in order to avoid an often months-long detention. In the process, he has become a voice of the Muslim community both here and throughout the country. It was an entirely unanticipated development in his career — but one for which he was uniquely prepared.
When Mohammed was 15, his family left India for America, settling in an apartment in Clifton. As a teenager Mohammed dreamed of opening an office on Clifton Avenue, like the lawyers, doctors and other professionals who worked there. His parents urged each of their four children to become doctors — a profession that, to them, represented the highest form of success. (One of his older brothers eventually became a neurologist.)
But Mohammed was more interested in engineering. To pay for college, he worked at a military defense firm — projects involved the space shuttle, military aircraft and a top-secret communications radio. At night, he attended the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), where he majored in electrical engineering.
Jury duty changed everything.
He was called in his senior year. The trial involved a drug charge, and the jury convicted both co-defendants. Mohammed was fascinated, particularly by the jury deliberations. “There were men and women of different professional backgrounds, all sitting in a room deciding the fate of this man and this woman,” he remembers. He was impressed by how seriously the jurors took the responsibility. But not everything pleased him. “I saw certain racial biases, and I said to myself, what goes on in this room, nobody knows.” He was also surprised when, after reaching a verdict on a Thursday, the jurors decided to delay announcing their decision until the following morning, so that they could take Friday off from work. It was his first lesson in the all-too-human motivations behind official decisions.
The following Monday morning, Mohammed called Judge Robert Passero, the presiding judge in the case, and asked to return to court as an observer. The judge agreed. Mohammed attended a robbery trial, sitting at the counsel table between the prosecutor and the defense attorney. His fascination grew. With encouragement from Judge Passero, Mohammed entered Seton Hall Law School after finishing at NJIT. As in college, he worked during the day and attended classes at night. But he still carved out time to found the Science and Technology Law Society, which won the “Student Organization of the Year” award three years in a row.
Under Mohammed’s leadership, the group presented programs that explored hot ethical issues of the day — euthanasia, silicon breast implants and photo radar. One panel featured Dr. Kevorkian. Another brought together the judge and opposing attorneys from the Baby M case, in which a surrogate mother sued for custody of the baby she’d carried. Mohammed served as a moderator for the programs, inviting opinions from all participants and helping to keep the atmosphere civil. “[The programs] brought these issues to life — they weren’t just academic ideas anymore,” Mohammed says. Through them, he gained respect for the justice system. “I learned that I didn’t care so much about my personal views on a matter, as long as justice was served.”
After passing the bar, Mohammed asked Judge Passero to swear him in. His parents attended the ceremony, and a story about it — “From Juror to Lawyer” — appeared in the then-North Jersey Herald & News. After the ceremony, Judge Passero asked him what he planned to do with his degree.
“I told him my goal was to be a trial attorney,” Mohammed says. “In law school, we used to watch Law & Order, and I wanted to be a hotshot litigator. And he said to me, ‘In this profession, you can make a lot of money if you want to, if that’s all you want to do. But if you want to serve others, you will find that there is also an opportunity.’” It was the same counsel Mohammed had received from his father, who’d told him, “Don’t forget that your role as a human being is to serve.”
After his swearing-in, Mohammed took a pilgrimage to Mecca to ponder his future. He eventually decided to become a solo practitioner, and opened an office on Clifton Avenue. He spent a few years handling bankruptcy, business practice and motor vehicle cases. Then clients started asking him to represent them in citizenship and immigration issues. Slowly, he began to specialize in that area.
“You never know what God has set in motion for you,” he says.
Mohammed was due in court on the morning of 9/11. He had a client, a Peruvian woman, who was being deported. As he began his commute, he heard the radio announcer reporting a plane crash in Manhattan. While sitting in traffic on 287, he actually saw the second plane hit. By the time he got to court, the building had been cleared. In the parking lot, he saw his client dancing. For her, the delay meant she would stay in the U.S. for a few more months. “If you did not know, it would be easy to think that this woman was enjoying our destruction,” Mohammed says. It was the first of many cross-cultural misunderstandings he would address in the days to come.
From the parking lot, Mohammed called the Paterson police chief and the Clifton mayor — people he knew from his work with the American Muslim Union (AMU). When they met, they were joined by FBI agents and Mohamed Younes, AMU’s co-founder.
Several years earlier, Younes had consulted with Mohammed for help with his mother’s citizenship. In passing, the two men had discussed how a lack of cultural understanding often caused unnecessary problems between Muslims and law enforcement. Together they formed the AMU, an organization dedicated to bringing Americans and Muslims together. They hosted a Ramadan dinner, open to the public, which has become an annual event. “We brought the community together at a place where they cannot disagree — food,” Mohammed says with a laugh. “It was the birth of a partnership.”
Now that partnership would be crucial. Mohammed was worried about the estimated 250,000 to 300,000 Muslims in New Jersey (including his wife and sons in Clifton) — especially those in Paterson, where some of the 9/11 hijackers had rented an apartment. Would there be riots? Would the Muslim community be blamed? “We needed to know from law enforcement exactly what went on, and we needed to see if there was anything we could do to help them,” Mohammed says.
After meeting with officials, Mohammed and Younes discussed precautionary measures with the community. “We told women that they shouldn’t venture out while wearing the hijab, which marked them as obviously Muslim. And we advised our community that if anybody makes derogatory comments about you, your religion, your wife, your sister, just ignore them, because this is not the time to argue.”
They advised Muslims on their rights. Hundreds of local residents would be questioned in the wake of the attacks, sometimes two or three times.
In the following weeks, Mohammed and Younes would serve as control rods in some potentially volatile situations. Mohammed, upon hearing that Howard Stern had announced on his radio show that Muslims were dancing in the streets in Paterson after the attacks, tried unsuccessfully to get the show to correct the record. A Turkish Muslim man who’d received a late-night visit from the FBI called Mohammed. The man had let the agents in, but became increasingly unhappy when the agents refused to take off their shoes.
“One of the guys said, ‘I’ll take my shoes off and put them right in your mouth,’” Younes recalls. “You see, when you are a Muslim, you put your face on the floor to pray. You don’t want shoes coming in.”
Younes and Mohammed discussed the incident with the FBI, urging better cultural training for agents so innocent behavior wouldn’t be taken for something suspicious — such as a woman taking time to answer the door while donning her hijab, or a man refusing to let agents into a particular room. “To them, it looks like he’s hiding something,” Younes says, “but it could be that his wife and daughters are not covered.”
Three days after 9/11, Mohammed helped organize a blood drive in Paterson. The community put up a banner denouncing terrorism. Soon, however, the U.S. government began to detain people, mostly Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian men with visa violations, and Mohammed was flooded with requests for representation.
Many who called had been detained for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One man was brought in after neighbors saw him putting laundry — which they thought was a bomb — into his car. Another man simply asked a police officer for directions.
“The officer noticed that the man had an accent,” Mohammed says. “And he said, ‘What is your name?’ The guy said: ‘Osama.’ And did he pay a price for that name.” When the man was brought in for questioning, police discovered he had overstayed his visa. He was questioned by agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force, who eventually cleared him of any other wrongdoing and referred him to the INS for deportation. That took four months, thanks to a new procedure that required everyone to be cleared by the national office in Washington before they could leave. And so the man remained in custody.
In fact, everyone detained after 9/11 was held for months longer than usual. Bail jumped from around $1,000 to $15,000. Hearings were closed even to family members, with only the judge, lawyers and court officials present. Attorneys were forbidden from discussing certain cases. Their conversations with clients were monitored.
“The community that they needed most in the war on terrorism was being alienated through misguided policies,” Mohammed says. He tells stories of terrified families who couldn’t get information about loved ones, of stress-induced miscarriages, of people who became suicidal while in detention, of abundant indignities, large and small. “None of my clients were charged with a criminal offense, let alone terrorism. None of them were even charged.”
He represented 29 individuals detained after 9/11, which he has been told is more than any other attorney in the country. “In November and December, I went to the jails and I saw about 2,000 people in the three or four facilities we had here in New Jersey,” he says. “I would say 95 percent of those people had no representation. I told several to keep their money and take it home.” Mohammed had learned that sometimes having an attorney made no difference. The men in custody were going to be deported anyway, and there was very little that could be done to speed up the clearances necessary to go.
“We had this tragedy, and it was a huge test of our democracy,” he says. “Before 9/11, people hired me to prolong their stay. Now they were paying me to get them out of the country.”
Since that time Mohammed has remained a strong advocate for his community and a devoted father to his three sons. He helped organize a job fair to increase the participation of Muslims in federal, state and local agencies, including the Secret Service and the INS. He’s a reliable guest on cable news shows and always good for a quote about such topics as racial profiling or enforcement of the Geneva Convention. The AMU has continued to hold its Ramadan dinner, and Mohammed regularly conducts presentations for law enforcement and others to introduce people to Muslim customs.
As for his own religious practice, Mohammed prefers to call himself disciplined rather than devout. “I try to be disciplined in every area of my life — my profession, my family and my religion,” he says. “Some people are blinded — by their profession, by religion. They are devout in one area, and then don’t follow the rules in other areas.” He prays five times a day, often rising early with his oldest son, and he takes Fridays off from work to attend prayers. He says the local courts have been very accommodating about rescheduling any appearances that conflict with his religious practice.
In November, Mohammed reached an agreement with the owners of Giants Stadium a few months after Muslim fans were detained and questioned by FBI agents who found them praying near the stadium’s main air duct. As part of the agreement, stadium officials established a space for anyone of any religion who wants to pray. “If it had been litigation, it would have been a two- or three-year battle,” he says.
To Younes, he’s an important ally: “Our organization tries to make a link between the Muslim community and the American community. We’ve done Ramadan outreach. We do a Sons of Abraham group, which involves Christians, Jews and Muslims. And we’ve been in meetings with the government, trying to solve problems, trying to communicate both sides. Sohail does anything he feels is necessary to help the community, or help someone in the community, or resolve a problem with the community.” After working together for close to a decade, Younes has come to rely on Mohammed’s commitment and drive. “Sohail never lets me down,” he says. “If you put anything on his shoulders, he will do it and to the best of his ability.”
As for Mohammed, he believes he has found the calling his father and Judge Passero urged him to seek. “My father always said God created us for a purpose,” he says. “Immigration law is not something I thought about in law school. But when 9/11 occurred, I said to myself, ‘This is why I was pulled into immigration law.’ If things are happening to immigrants, it’s going to affect Americans. If immigrants are deported, they will leave. But if you don’t stop the scrutiny, the constitutional damage that’s being done, who’s going to be left to face the consequences? Americans.”