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Officials Envision Probation Program For People Facing Terror Charges

By Mila Koumpilova, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS — Federal authorities in Minnesota are looking at ways to steer some terrorism offenders away from radical ideologies and safely back into society.

In a national first, they are considering adopting pretrial release and probation programs that would blend traditional supervision with counseling and other services to move young people away from militancy.

The head of federal probation in Minneapolis recently traveled to study “deradicalization” initiatives in Europe, where their use has grown, triggering intense controversy. Leaders of the Twin Cities’ East African community and attorneys for nine young men charged with trying to join Middle East militants have pitched their own proposals for allowing the suspects to leave jail as they await trials or sentencing.

With a limited track record for such programs and heightened public anxiety about homegrown terrorism, officials say they are moving cautiously. Attorneys believe it is unlikely the government will sign off on a release proposal before a May trial for five of the defendants.

“You have to balance deradicalization and public safety, with public safety being paramount,” said Kevin Lowry, the chief U.S. probation officer in Minneapolis. “It’s a challenge.”

Early last year, Judge Michael Davis approved an experimental release for one of three defendants who pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a plan to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, in Syria. The program, which combined mentoring and electronic monitoring, drew national attention.

The defendant, Abdullahi Yusuf, returned to jail last summer, but the nonprofit Heartland Democracy says it continues to work with him and with probation officials.

Yusuf, then an 18-year-old community college student, was the first to plead guilty in February as part of an ongoing FBI investigation. Davis signed off on a Heartland Democracy program that connected Yusuf with a team of religious scholars, teachers and other mentors. But in May, Yusuf was taken back into custody after staff at the St. Paul halfway house where he lived found a box cutter taped under his bed.

That spring, six more young men were arrested as part of the same investigation. Attorneys, family members and community supporters argued that the men should be allowed to await trial out of jail. They pointed to the suspects’ lack of criminal history and questioned the strength of the government’s case against them.

A group of community leaders made a proposal: Local mosques would take responsibility for each man, with imams working to convince the suspects that terror groups sell a distorted version of Islam. The defendants would wear electronic monitors and check in with probation officers.

Davis wasn’t sold. Given the charges that they tried to join the most violent terror group in the world, he said the young men are flight risks and pose a danger to the community.

Supporters continue to argue for supervised release — even as they recognize that the San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting has not helped their case. They say such a move would undercut Islamic State propaganda about the U.S. government.

“We need to have a program in place to give these young men a second chance,” said Sadik Warfa, a community leader and a spokesman for some defendants’ families. “Jail is not the answer.”

At the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services in Minneapolis, Lowry said he cannot discuss whether individual defendants might be candidates for the programs his office is looking to design. He stressed that the effort is at an early stage and still needs funding.

Over nine days in October, Lowry met with government officials, nonprofits and others in Berlin and London. He looked at programs designed to intervene with would-be jihadis, from people whose families worry they might have tuned in to radical propaganda to those returning from fighting in the Middle East. One German program, an offshoot of a long-standing effort to “deprogram” neo-Nazis, helps family members intervene with young recruits.

As hundreds of young people have left Europe to join radical groups, such intervention programs have multiplied and drawn scrutiny. They can involve religious instruction, psychological counseling, job training or cautionary tales from “formers,” militants disillusioned with violent jihad.

Critics on the right question whether such programs can effectively wrest people from the grip of radicalism; they call for a tough law enforcement and long sentences. On the left, detractors say intervention programs can stigmatize Muslim communities and ensnare people for voicing unpopular views.

To Lowry, the challenge lies in finding a proven approach. Some of these programs have been around for almost a decade, but reliable data on their effectiveness is still scarce.

“People claim some level of success, but I think there’s not as much research and numbers as we’d like,” he said.

Lorenzo Vidino, the director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, points to a program in Denmark to rehabilitate returning fighters who often cannot be charged because of insufficient evidence. Officials in that country, which U.S. Attorney Andy Luger visited last year, note only one of more than 30 participants has headed back to the Middle East. But, says Vidino, proving that the program produced that outcome is hard. And that approach would be a tough sell in the United States, which has much stricter penalties for terror-related offenses.

“Nobody’s under the illusion that these programs work all the time,” said Vidino. “It’s not threat elimination. It’s threat reduction.”

©2016 Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Weapons confiscated from last Wednesday’s attack in San Bernardino, California are shown in this San Bernardino County Sheriff Department handout photo from their Twitter account released to Reuters December 3, 2015.  REUTERS/San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department/Handout

Companies Labor To Get Visas For Skilled Foreign Professionals

By Mila Koumpilova, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS — William Dinauer, president of laser maker LasX Industries, had no doubts about hiring Chinese-born Yahui Zhang this year.

She has a doctorate in industrial engineering and experience working for a larger device manufacturer. She was open to the posted salary, geared toward a candidate with a bachelor’s degree. Dinauer’s only misgiving: Can he keep her?

At the first opportunity, White Bear Lake, Minnesotta-based LasX recently applied for a three-year H-1B visa for Zhang — the most common type of work visa for college-educated professionals. Dinauer knew the company had to move fast. Five business days later, applications topped the annual limit for H1-B visas, and the government said it will once again hold a lottery to dole the visas out.

This spring, the H-1B program is the focus of intense debate in Congress and keen interest in Minnesota, where companies have come to rely more on the visas in recent years.

Supporters of the program say easing the annual rush on the visas would help employers find highly skilled candidates for hard-to-fill positions. Opponents counter many companies use the program for cheaper, more pliable labor, bypassing qualified American workers.

“This debate is very essential and a healthy one,” said Minneapolis immigration attorney Dyan Williams. “It’s not all black and white.”

In the past three years, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services stopped accepting applications five business days after the application season begins. Last year, the agency received more than twice as many applications as the 85,000 visas available under the cap; 20,000 of those are earmarked for applicants with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

In recent years, Minnesota employers have made growing use of H-1B visas. In 2013, the most recent for which state data is available, they lined up more than 5,500 H-1Bs, a more than 40 percent increase in five years. Rochester-based Mayo Clinic — exempt from the cap as a nonprofit educational and research institution — has 400 H-1B employees from 66 countries out of 59,000 on its campuses nationwide.

LasX, which under government H-1B requirements did pay Zhang more than the bachelor-level salary it had posted, got nearly 40 applications for that job. Still, Dinauer says his 70-employee company competes with larger manufacturers in the Twin Cities and beyond for “that one top engineer.” Five years ago, LasX sponsored a Malaysian engineer who’s since helped design laser equipment to make a new medical diagnostic device.

“Having a lottery to select people seems silly to me if they want to live here and contribute to our economy,” he said.

At Duluth’s North Point Geographic Solutions, a digital mapping company, owner Carolyn Adams hired Chinese native Xue Gao in February after a six-month search that involved tweaking and reposting an opening that went unfilled. Adams says recruiting and training a new employee takes time, and the uncertainty of the lottery process is tough on small companies: “From a business perspective, this is really stressful.”

The H-1B program has long provoked debate in Congress, where lawmakers perennially ponder raising the visa cap or, on the flip side, putting new restrictions on the program. This winter, Mark Krikorian of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies thought this would be the year when Congress acts to increase the cap. To Krikorian, the prospect was troubling. He deems H-1B “a cheap labor program” that, because visa recipients are largely tied to their employers, yields “white-collar indentured workers.”

“I am yet to be convinced we should have an H-1B program at all,” he said. “If we do, it should be restricted to truly exceptional talent.”

An H-1B increase is tied up installed efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for immigrants without legal status. Bipartisan momentum was building to tackle the high demand for work visas and work-based green cards separately.

The I-Squared Act of 2015 would increase the H-1B cap to as many as 195,000 visas based on market demand, among other changes. The legislation drew key Republican backing and endorsements from the likes of Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. But it also met with major pushback in committee, where critics highlighted a study suggesting a relatively high number of U.S. science and technology graduates do not work in their fields as evidence there is no shortage of American job candidates.

A recent controversy involving Southern California Edison didn’t help: The power company planned to lay off hundreds of workers while enlisting Indian companies that supply workers to U.S. employers and snap up many of the available H-1B visas.

Attempts to compare salaries for H-1B workers and their American counterparts have yielded much conflicting research over the years. A recent study by the nonprofit American Institute for Economic Research found H-1B status accounted for no statistically significant difference in pay in occupations that draw the bulk of those visas.

Williams, the Twin Cities attorney, agrees — but she also sees the potential for abuse. She believes a debate about increasing the visas should come with a look at “checks and balances,” such as raising the prevailing wage, a state-by-state estimate of compensation earned by most workers in a given field, which H-1B ­sponsors must offer at a minimum to foreign employees.

“If you’re going to increase the cap,” Williams said, “you really need to look at whether you are indeed hiring the best and the brightest.”

Debjyoti Dwivedy, vice president of the advocacy group Immigration Voice and a Twin Cities data storage engineer, says his organization doesn’t support boosting visa numbers — unless there is a proportionate increase in work-based green cards, which allow workers the flexibility to switch employers and start their own companies.

Dwivedy, who earned a master’s from North Dakota State University, is allowed to work on his student visa for up to 27 months before lining up an H-1B — a longer period for technology grads like him. So after striking out in last year’s lottery, he gets a second chance to apply this spring.

“The U.S. government spent a lot of money on me,” said Dwivedy, who studied on a full scholarship. “Now it’s my turn to serve this country.”

Photo: Elizabeth Flores via Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS