When Akram Djumaev, a 33-year-old permanent resident of the United States, took a trip to visit his family and fiancé in Uzbekistan in early 2016, he expected to be away from home for just over two months. Five years later, Djumaev has never returned to the United States, pushed into exile after a terrifying encounter with FBI agents at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent and, he suspects, his placement on the no-fly list.

The FBI agents pressured Djumaev into giving up his permanent resident status, accusing him of criminal activity and interrogating him about former employers who had faced federal criminal charges, according to a lawsuit filed on Wednesday. Djumaev himself has never faced any criminal charge nor even been brought before an immigration court. When he later booked travel to the United States, the authorities blocked his return.

The lawsuit — brought by City University of New York’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility Project, or CLEAR, against the FBI and the departments of Homeland Security and State on Djumaev’s behalf — asks the federal government to honor his permanent residence status or otherwise allow him to return to the United States. The lawsuit aims to shed light on the extraordinary steps that federal agents took to circumvent due process by warning Djumaev that he would face dire consequences if he did not comply with their demand to sign a form relinquishing his green card, as the permanent residence document is known.

“The FBI went to extreme lengths to prevent our client from returning to the United States, sending its agents to Uzbekistan and coercing him to sign a form which he did not understand,” said Naz Ahmad, senior staff attorney at CLEAR, in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “This practice, in combination with the FBI’s abuse of its power to place people on the No-Fly List, borders on unlawful banishment, and Akram Djumaev should be allowed to fly home.”

The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

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Immigration law experts say that coercing someone into giving up their green card through threats and intimidation is not just an abuse of power, but also an attempt to evade legal processes in which the government would have to meet a burden of proof that would justify revoking a person’s permanent resident status. Without such status, the person would not legally be allowed to live in the United States.

“The proper means of stripping someone of a green card requires an immigration court process here in the U.S., in which the government must file charges against the immigrant and prove by clear, unequivocal, and convincing evidence that someone is deportable,” said Erin Quinn, senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “What seems incredibly egregious about this situation is the targeting of a permanent resident during a temporary trip overseas, coercing and threatening them into surrendering their green card without taking the legal steps required to strip them of permanent resident status.”

“For the form to have legal significance, it should be submitted knowingly and voluntarily by the applicant, without coercion.”

The document that Djumaev signed forfeiting his residency, Form I-407, or “Record of Abandonment of Lawful Permanent Resident Status,” is intended to be a voluntary request to abandon status made by a permanent resident who has decided to move abroad. In cases in which the federal government seeks to revoke a person’s residency, the government must inform the person of their right to a hearing before an immigration court and to be represented by an attorney. In his lawsuit, Djumaev claims that the agents did not inform him of these rights.

“The typical application of Form I-407 is done by someone who moves back to their home country, decides that they no longer plan to live in the U.S., and wants to signal that fact to the U.S. government,” Quinn said. “However, for the form to have legal significance, it should be submitted knowingly and voluntarily by the applicant, without coercion.”

US-embassy-uzbekistan

Security guards walk past a logo at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in a video posted to the embassy’s Facebook page on May 20, 2021.

Still: U.S. Embassy Tashkent

At the time that Djumaev’s ordeal began in 2016, the United States was locked in a conflict with the Islamic State. This conflict played out via military force abroad and also through controversial FBI tactics at home. Those included the use of informants and sting operations, which became one of the FBI’s signature tactics after 9/11, with hundreds of individuals swept up in investigations that often involved substantial encouragement from government-paid informants. One man caught in an informant-driven case was Abror Habibov, for whom Djumaev had once worked at a jewelry store. Habibov was arrested in 2015 following a sting involving covert government informants who helped foment a plot to raise money to send two younger men from the United States to Syria to take part in the conflict there. Djumaev was not legally implicated in the case nor has he ever been charged or accused of any crime related to terrorism.

Djumaev, who lived in Chicago and worked as a truck driver, became a permanent resident in March 2013. In early 2016, he set off for Uzbekistan to visit his family. He traveled through John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, where FBI agents interrogated him about his personal background and whether he had any connections to Syria, Afghanistan, or Turkey before confiscating his phone. To date, the government has yet to return Djumaev’s phone. (According to the lawsuit, an embassy official told Djumaev in late 2016 to come to the embassy to retrieve his phone but reversed course after a CLEAR attorney got involved. The lawsuit asks the federal government for information on how the information on his phone was disseminated and used.)

Despite being harassed at the airport, he was allowed to board his flight to Tashkent. When he attempted to return home to the United States two months later, however, he was prevented from boarding at the airport — an indication that he had been placed on the no-fly list. In response, Djumaev filed a Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, known as TRIP, inquiry in March 2016, which is a standard means of determining whether a U.S. citizen or permanent resident has been placed on the list.

Two months later, Djumaev was contacted by the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent and instructed to attend a meeting there. He assumed that the meeting was related to his recent difficulties flying.

When he arrived, he was placed in a windowless room and met by agents from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, as well as two State Department officials. One of the embassy employees translated to and from Russian, which is not Djumaev’s first language.

The agents questioned him about events in Syria, which was then in the middle of a grueling war that had drawn in international terrorist groups including ISIS, according to Djumaev’s lawsuit. The agents aggressively insisted that Djumaev must admit to his own involvement in terrorism, though they never made any specific allegations or provided any evidence against him. The lawsuit claims that agents yelled at Djumaev during the interrogation, exhorting him to admit that he was somehow guilty of supporting terrorism by telling him, among other things, “You’re lying, just be honest with us, we know everything” and “We know you’re guilty, just admit it, just admit it.”

After about an hour of interrogation, Djumaev was told that he had two options: He could return to the United States, where agents told him there was a “100% guarantee” of him being arrested, or he could sign a form relinquishing his green card, in which case, “the FBI will leave you alone.”

The agents further told Djumaev that “we have to come to an understanding before you leave this room.” Terrified by their threats, Djumaev signed an I-407, which the agents had already filled out with his details. On the copy of the form that he signed, according to court filings, Djumaev “had to write the date three separate times because his hands were shaking.” After being instructed that he would have to write the reason he was giving up his residency, Djumaev told the State Department official that he was scared of returning to the United States for fear of arrest ­— precisely what the agents had been threatening him with. The official instead wrote, “I am accused of participation in ISIS and will be arrested when I go back. That is why I will not return,” something that Djumaev, in his lawsuit, says he did not instruct the official to write.

“The scary part is that we don’t know how often it is that FBI agents are flying to embassies around the world and coercing permanent residents of the U.S. into giving up their green cards.”

Djumaev has since made two unsuccessful efforts to fly back to the United States. His lawyers believe that he is likely on the no-fly list, as well as potentially other secret U.S. government watchlists that could cause him serious problems while traveling or crossing borders anywhere in the world. The federal government is required to inform citizens and permanent residents of their placement on the no-fly list, but it has not meaningfully responded to Djumaev’s efforts to get more information about his status, according to his lawsuit.

His lawyers say that the case is a window into a larger problem of FBI intimidation of immigrants and permanent residents, as well as of how rights are often violated by law enforcement agents at liminal spaces like border crossings and embassies, where federal officials have more latitude to act without due process constraints.

“This case showcases the extent to which the FBI has been willing to force exile onto people who otherwise have the right to stay in the U.S., by cornering them in places where they don’t know their rights or have access to legal support,” Ahmad of CLEAR said in an interview. “The scary part is that we don’t know how often it is that FBI agents are flying to embassies around the world and coercing permanent residents of the U.S. into giving up their green cards. These are people who don’t know what options are available to them, and are often terrified.”