- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

The naturalized citizen charged as the head of a ring that has smuggled 200 mainly Iraqi illegals into the United States since 2001 could have been stripped of her citizenship and deported after an earlier conviction on similar charges more than 10 years ago.

Iraqi-born Neeran Hakim Zaia was indicted in October 2004 along with her husband and three others after an undercover investigation spanning three continents, lasting more that three years and costing millions of dollars, say officials familiar with the case.

Last week, in District Court in Washington, Mrs. Zaia’s husband, Thaer Omran Ismail Asaifi, also known as Abu Harp, pleaded guilty. He faces six to eight years in prison, after which he would be deported.

But Mrs. Zaia, who is contesting her competency to stand trial, still faces charges. As a citizen, she will be released if she is acquitted or after she has served her sentence.

A review of court papers and other documents in the case reveals that Mrs. Zaia could have faced charges of procuring citizenship unlawfully after her earlier conviction. If stripped of her citizenship, she would have been deported after her sentence.

But the statute of limitations had elapsed on that offense before prosecutors in the new case got hold of the file, and they now face a lengthy and potentially costly prosecution to jail Mrs. Zaia on the latest alien-smuggling charges.

In December 1992, according to court papers and news accounts, Mrs. Zaia was convicted by a federal court in Michigan on seven counts of visa fraud, three counts of bribery and one charge of alien smuggling.

As part of the naturalization process, all would-be citizens complete a sworn declaration that they have not committed any undeclared criminal offenses. Making a false declaration is a crime and is grounds for the revocation of citizenship, but only for 10 years.

Mrs. Zaia became a naturalized citizen before her arrest. By the time investigators began to look at Mrs. Zaia again in 2002 — inspired by post-September 11 concerns about possible links between alien smugglers and terrorists — it would already have been too late to move against her on charges of making a false declaration in seeking citizenship.

Officials involved in the current prosecution declined to comment on any aspect of the previous case.

“This is a challenging area for prosecutors,” said Victor Cerda, a former senior official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Courts are “very sensitive about these kinds of actions by the government,” Mr. Cerda said. “It is a big thing to strip someone of their citizenship.”

But he added that since September 11, prosecutors had become “much more aggressive” in their use of immigration-fraud charges.

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