Just as President George W. Bush was announcing Monday a new effort to deport foreigners illegally in this country, one of five Israelis jailed for working here illegally called his mother from jail to ask when he could go home. The five men were arrested and imprisoned just hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
�He cried and asked how long it will take before he can come home,� Israela Marmari of Petach Tikvah said a half-hour after her son, Omer, 22, called from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. �When they were arrested in September, it was believed they were Arabs connected with the terror in New York.�
In the moving van they were driving for their employer, Urban Moving Systems in Weehawken, N.J., the men � ages 22 to 27 and all single � carried box cutters. One had $4,000 in cash, another had a camera, and a third had two passports because he is also a German citizen.
They were stopped by a police at about 3 p.m. Sept. 11 after two women saw them standing on the roofs of the moving company and their van, smiling as they took pictures of each other with the burning World Trade Center in the background.
No terrorism charges were ever filed, according to their lawyer, Steven Gordon. A spokesman for the Israeli Consulate in New York said flatly: �We were told specifically that they are not suspects� in the terror attacks.
The five were ordered deported Sept. 25 by an immigration judge after they acknowledged working here illegally. The Immigration and Naturalization Service would normally move expeditiously to deport them, but they have been caught up in the Bush administration�s effort to nab anyone even remotely connected with the terror attacks.
The Israelis are among more than 1,000 people arrested since the attack. As in most of the cases, the government was circumspect in releasing information about the arrests.
Gordon said he had difficulty communicating with his clients because when he called to speak with them at the Metropolitan Detention Center, authorities denied knowledge of their whereabouts. Family members also said they could not call and have spoken with them only twice since their arrests.
An INS spokesman, Russell Bergeron, declined to comment directly on the case but acknowledged there are delays in deporting foreigners picked up in connection with the terror attacks.
�The United States government is involved in a worldwide criminal investigation involving the murder of some 6,000 U.S. citizens,� Bergeron explained. �In the course of that investigation, there are individuals who have been arrested by the immigration service. Any individual arrested by INS as a result of this investigation and ordered deported from the United States will remain in custody until that release has been coordinated and cleared by all of the appropriate authorities involved in the investigation.
�We have an obligation to ensure that before individuals are sent out of the country, we are as certain as is humanly possible that they are not linked to or have information regarding the terrorist attack on the United States. There is a time frame before we have to consider releasing those individuals, and it is measured in months.�
He said that since Sept. 11, about 235 foreigners have been picked up for questioning by INS; about 185 remain in custody.
The American Civil Liberties Union joined with a coalition of civil liberties groups this week in filing a Freedom of Information Act request for information about all of those detained since Sept. 11.
Tim Edgar, the ACLU�s legislative counsel, said also he was concerned about a new terrorism law signed by Bush last week that gives law enforcement broad powers to track down and arrest suspected terrorists.
�I would say it is one of the most serious erosions of civil liberties since the 1996 Terrorist Act, and maybe even more serious,� he said.
Gordon said that as an American he could appreciate the precautions taken by the government. But he said his clients have already passed lie detector tests, been �subjected to rigorous interrogation� � including one 16-hour stretch at the beginning � and that they have not been questioned in more than a month.
�Their investigation has concluded because if there was anything else, they would be charged or continue to be questioned,� he said.
Families of the five said their incarceration has been difficult. Until this week, Marmari was held in isolation; the others were released from isolation a few days earlier. All are now in with the general prison population.
�They are in very bad condition emotionally,� said Israela Marmari, who noted that her son had been working for the moving company only two weeks before his arrest. �We know that everybody is doing everything they can in Israel and in New York [for them], but nobody knows when this is going to be over.
�They are good boys. They are so innocent. My son was in shock [after his arrest]. He said, �Mommy, I can�t believe it. We are Israeli and live with terror every day. How could anybody believe that Israelis could do anything like this?� �
Ronit Ellner said she had planned to come to the U.S. this month for 10 days to visit her son, Oded, 27, who came to the U.S. six months before his arrest. Ellner said that when she last spoke with Oded by phone, she did most of the talking.
�I wanted to make him strong and I told him it was all a bad dream that would be over,� she said. �I said it would be over and he will come back home. He wants to come back. He misses us and he cries.�
Katie Shmuel said her son, Yaron, 26, who has dual citizenship, had worked for the moving company about six months.
�It�s all a big mistake,� she said.
Heni Kayea, 35, the sister of the other two men, Paul and Sivan Kurzberg, 27 and 23, said the brothers have been kept separate since their arrest. Kayea said the family did not learn of their arrest until two days later when the mother of one of the other men picked up called her parents� home with the news.
�We called immigration and for a month they said there are no names like this in the computer,� said Kayea, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.
Kayea said that on the morning of the World Trade Center attack, each of the men called their parents in Israel to assure them they were well and were working in New Jersey at the time. When the family learned that they were arrested in the �belief they were Arabs, we were shocked,� she said.
�My brothers are tall with blue eyes and brown hair. They look like Europeans,� Kayea said.
She said Sivan, who had the camera, had planned to fly to India on Sept. 14 to meet friends there. n