The Algiers Connection

Sofaine Laimeche's long friendship with a 9/11 suspect has put his future in America in doubt

"Did you have breakfast?" he asks before an interview. "Coffee? We have coffee. Very expensive. We have very expensive Starbucks coffee, we do. But I don't drink it. My wife does."

When the coffee is declined, he tells his wife, "Give him some anyway. Hey, it's free. I'm just making fun here. People can read it, laugh. People can say 'What a weird Muslim.' "

Laimeche is a firebrand when talk turns to the Middle East. Sometimes he sounds militant, but with a tone more like that of the Islamic funnymen on Comedy Central's Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.

Algeria, the second-largest African nation.
Algeria, the second-largest African nation.
Political upheaval has plagued modern Algeria.
AP/Wide World
Political upheaval has plagued modern Algeria.

"Get the knife!" he yells to Corinne after hearing something he doesn't like during a discussion about Islam. He smiles when he says it.

He thinks America is "stupid" for supporting Israel and says that if the Jewish people need a homeland, "How about Nevada?" He likes to joke that his children are growing up to be Muslim fanatics. He gets steamed easily when discussing George W. Bush or the war in Iraq.

Despite his opposition to the Bush administration's foreign policy, Laimeche seems to love this country. He knows he's got it good.

During a 2002 federal trial in which Laimeche was charged with Social Security fraud, his lawyer told the jury, "This case is about purely working toward what we might call the American Dream."

But Laimeche represents more than that. The fact that he's still here at all says something about American tolerance for religious differences, dissidents, lawbreakers — even people who may appear, in the age of the war on terror, slightly suspicious.

He was one of four Muslims in Arizona charged with various crimes after September 11 because of their suspected links to the hijackers and, in particular, to Hani Hanjour, a Saudi who once lived in the Valley and is believed to have been at the controls of the 757 that hit the Pentagon.

Laimeche was convicted of Social Security fraud and making false statements on immigration and tax-withholding forms.

The others — fellow Algerian Redoune Dahmani and two Saudi Arabians, Malek Seif and Faisal Al Salmi — were also charged with relatively minor crimes. They were put behind bars and later deported.

Laimeche is the only one still in the Valley.

Even in the screwed-up world of American immigration policy, Laimeche's case is a rarity. Most illegal immigrants with multiple felony convictions get tossed out of the country. He continues to work at a Phoenix bakery but he turned in his temporary green card four years ago after it expired. He hasn't been told to leave, but he hasn't been told he can stay, either.

At his 2002 sentencing hearing, assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Sexton argued that Laimeche should be incarcerated to send a message to other illegal immigrants.

"There's a very low probability, strangely enough and unfortunately, that he will be deported because of this conduct," the prosecutor told U.S. District Judge James Teilborg. "Even though he came in illegally."

Reached for this story, Sexton didn't shed light on his vague statements.

"I have no memory of the case," Sexton told New Times.

Laimeche was put on probation for three years and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service. He believes officials assumed that deporting him to Algeria would be a hardship for his family.

But that can't explain it totally. Mexicans who have American children get deported every day. That's why Mexican citizen Elvira Arellano and her 7-year-old American son have been holed up in a Chicago-area Methodist church since August, for example.

Laimeche has tried to verify his immigration status over the past few years. He and his wife say that the last time they went to the immigration office, about six months ago, they were told that no record of him existed there, so they went home.

He believes it's risky to talk to a reporter. Perhaps someone in the government won't like his criticisms and will move to get rid of him.

But he's not a fearful man. In early March, he signed a waiver with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement instructing the agency to release his status to New Times. When the agency hadn't replied after more than a week to the faxed form, Laimeche quipped that it was taking ICE officials a long time to cook up their explanation.

Algeria is Africa's second-largest country, an immense nation four times the size of Texas, and is home to the descendants of Barbary Coast pirates and ancient Berbers.

Shaped something like a pear, it's sandwiched between Morocco and Libya, the northern region narrowing near the Mediterranean Sea to give the country about 650 miles of coastline. Most of its population of 33 million is in the fertile northern valleys. Eighty-five percent of its area is sparsely inhabited Saharan wasteland.

It's a nation with a rich and tumultuous past. But the biggest effect on its modern history happened when the French invaded in 1830 and occupied the country. For 132 years.

The native Arabic population rose up in a bloody revolution in the late 1950s, and Algeria became an independent state in 1962. More than a million refugees, mostly French and European, fled the nation that year to avoid a feared wave of genocide.

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