A federal immigration judge ruled today that Mohammad Qatanani, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, can remain in the U.S.
The 44-year-old Palestinian has served as the imam, or Muslim religious leader, since 1996 at the mosque in Paterson, a city that is home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the region.
U.S. immigration authorities had sought to deport Qatanani on grounds that he failed to disclose on his green card application a prior arrest and conviction in Israel for being a member of Hamas — a group classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
Qatanani has denied being a Hamas member and said he was detained, not arrested, by the Israelis while traveling to his native West Bank in 1993.
In 2005, he initiated a meeting with immigration officials to inquire about the delay in his green card application, during which he told them about his detention in Israel. U.S. officials later received documents from Israel that claimed he had been arrested and convicted.
A 71-page written decision issued by immigration Judge Alberto J. Riefkohl called the U.S. government’s case against Qatanani “patently incomplete” and found its two key witnesses — both federal agents — to not be credible.”
Their testimony is tainted by the lack of an accurate record and their inconsistent and contradictory testimony,” Riefkohl wrote.
Qatanani emigrated from Jordan in 1996 on a religious worker visa to lead the New Jersey mosque. He applied for permanent U.S. residency in 1999 for himself, his wife and three of their six children who were not born in America.
Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sought to portray Qatanani as a terrorist-affiliated Muslim activist, quoting a sermon he gave at the Paterson mosque in which he called Israelis “transgressors” and questioning his ties to his brother-in-law, a convicted Hamas terrorist who was killed by the Israelis.
The judge found no credible evidence linking him to terrorism and wrote that family ties to a convicted terrorist do not make someone a terrorist. He said testimony in support of the imam from U.S. law enforcement officials made his application credible.
His immigration fight garnered national attention for the unusual spectacle of high-ranking law enforcement officials taking the stand on his behalf.
The story gained national attention when a prominent New Jersey rabbi took the stand to defend the imam and ask the judge to let him stay.
Both parties have 30 days to appeal the ruling.