MANHATTAN (CN) – Many transformations paved the way for Mohammed Khalid to stand as an anti-extremism activist, seven years after becoming the youngest person prosecuted for terrorism offenses in the United States.
A new one, conferred Thursday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, is from Pakistani to U.S. citizen.
Reversing a judgment by the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals, the federal appeals court said that the pretrial detention of Khalid just shy of his 18th birthday did not remove him from his father’s “physical custody.”
“As a result, Khalid is a U.S. citizen, and the Department of Homeland Security must terminate removal proceedings against him,” U.S. Circuit Judge Christopher Droney wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
Khalid was born in the United Arab Emirates, but moved to Maryland with his Pakistani parents at age 13. Two years later, Khalid first made contact with Colleen LaRose, a U.S. Muslim convert who emerged as the self-styled “Jihad Jane” in the plot to kill a Swedish artist for depicting the head of the prophet Mohammad on the body of a dog.
LaRose introduced Khalid to a secret extremist chatroom where the teenager used the Urdu language skills of his upbringing to translate their videos into English.
Khalid was 17 in 2011 when he was indicted along with LaRose’s accused co-conspirator, Ali Charaf Damache, known by his online nom de guerre “Theblackflag.”
After pleading guilty, Khalid entered an agreement with federal prosecutors that earned him a lenient five-year sentence.
“Khalid cooperated extensively with the government following his arrest,” Judge Droney noted Thursday. “He met with federal investigators over twenty times and testified in grand jury proceedings for two investigations. The government acknowledged that ‘Khalid’s assistance advanced multiple national security investigations in important ways.’”
That cooperation carried risks for Khalid amid the uncertainty of his immigration status.
“Khalid maintained that he would be tortured if removed to Pakistan because of his cooperation in the federal terrorism investigations,” a footnote of the 40-page opinion states.
After his release, Khalid is publishing a personal account of his experiences with help from a London-based counter-extremism think-tank known as the Quilliam Foundation. His struggle for U.S. citizenship meanwhile turned less on his making amends for his conviction than a technical fight over his pretrial detention.
Khalid’s father became a U.S. citizen on Aug. 17, 2011, a little more than a month after his son’s arrest and shortly before the teenager legally became an adult.
Both under Presidents Obama and Trump, the Department of Justice argued that Khalid’s brief stint in juvenile detention removed him from his father’s “physical custody,” making him ineligible for citizenship.
But the Second Circuit said such a rule would have “unfortunate consequences” that would endure long after Khalid’s case.
“For example, a high school boarding student away at school would not derive citizenship from her parent who naturalized unless she returned home before turning eighteen,” Droney wrote. “Similarly, a student on a semester trip abroad might be denied citizenship under the BIA’s interpretation if his parent naturalized while he was abroad and he turned eighteen while on that trip.”
In a two-paragraph concurrence, U.S. Circuit Judges Dennis Jacobs and Peter Hall agreed with this view on the law, but they stopped short of rolling out the welcome mat for Khalid.
“I concur in the opinion of the court, its reasoning, and its result,” Jacobs wrote.
“At the same time, I cannot congratulate Khalid on his American citizenship,” he continued. “He plotted sneaking violence against Americans, who gave his family a home, and he cooperated with the authorities only when, having been caught, he found himself needing another kind of refuge.”
Khalid insisted in a recent interview with The Guardian that his turnabout is sincere.
“There are second chances in life,” Khalid told the British paper. “Believing in that is very important to me. I think the United States gives you that avenue, if you do make a mistake you have a chance to reinvent yourself.”
Wayne Sachs, a Philadelphia-based attorney for Khalid, celebrated the ruling as a triumph of dispassionate legal analysis over the emotions spurred by his client’s sensational case.
“This was a very satisfying victory for a well-deserving young man with a bright future,” Sachs said in an email. “The court finally accepted the simple statutory and legislative history arguments which were advanced and rejected by four previous courts, and in so doing, properly focused on the law rather than the petitioner's 'notoriety.'”
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Immigrant Defense Project, which led more than a dozen human rights groups and professors in supporting Khalid’s cause, is expected to release a statement on the ruling.
In a 22-page brief, the groups' attorney Andrew Wachtenheim did not mention Khalid by name, but he warned that the government’s interpretation of the law would have had consequences far beyond his case.
“Every year, thousands of parents and children nationwide are forcibly separated for periods of time due to criminal incarceration, immigration and juvenile detention, and child welfare system involvement,” he wrote in a June 2017 brief.
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