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Muslim immigration officer’s bias suit will proceed

A federal appeals court has cleared the way for a Muslim immigration officer’s workplace discrimination lawsuit to go to trial, saying the officer showed “telling evidence” of unfair practices at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Boston.

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston ruled last week that Tahar Ahmed and his supervisors should present their opposing sides to a jury. The action overturned a decision by a lower court judge, who said Ahmed did not provide enough evidence of discrimination to move forward.

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Ahmed said in court records that he was passed over for a promotion to deportation officer in favor of three less qualified white men because he is Muslim, Arab, and a native of Algeria. ICE supervisors denied there was any discrimination and said they promoted the others because they were better qualified for the job.

The ruling did not resolve whether discrimination occurred, but the three-judge appeals panel said that decision was “properly the task of a jury.”

Ahmed’s lawyer, Ozell Hudson Jr., said the preliminary ruling marked a “powerful statement” that Ahmed had enough evidence to go to trial. “That is a tremendous obstacle,” said Hudson, a civil rights lawyer in Boston. “The court was saying here that there was a substantial amount of evidence.”

But the US attorney’s office said the appeals court said ICE also presented evidence that the agency did not discriminate against Ahmed, so the final outcome “could go either way.”

“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the decision,” said Rosemary Connolly, chief of the civil division at the US attorney’s office, which represents ICE in court. “Really, what the court said here is it’s pretty much a jump ball.”

The appeals court said Ahmed offered “telling evidence of a pattern of bypassing minorities for promotion in ICE’s Boston office.” From 2003 to 2011, the court said, the Boston office did not have a single black or Arab deportation officer.

“Most significantly, the record reveals a history of hiring and promotions that entirely excluded African-Americans and, perhaps, Muslims, from deportation officer positions in Boston,” the court said.

Ahmed filed the lawsuit in 2010, the year after he failed to get the promotion, despite his higher score on the qualification test and superior language skills, court records show. He speaks English and Arabic and had worked for ICE since 2003 in the Criminal Alien Program, where he identifies criminals for deportation.

The appeals court noted that Ahmed had “sparkling appraisals” of his work ethic and job performance. At least one competitor, the court said, was described as lazy by a superior.

But in court records, ICE said the three white men were more qualified to serve as deportation officers, who perform legal research and manage cases to carry out deportations. ICE said the men’s scores were close to Ahmed’s. Two supervisors had recommended them to the agency’s field office director at the time, Bruce Chadbourne, who made the final decision.

“These three individuals were chosen based on their education, experience, training, work product, and work history,” ICE’s lawyers said in court records.

Chadbourne, who retired in 2011, did not respond to phone and e-mail messages.

In court records, Chadbourne said that he did not know Ahmed’s race, religion, or country of origin. Chadbourne said he believed that Ahmed was Lebanese and African-American. Ahmed identified himself as “white, North African,” according to the court decision.

Chadbourne acknowledged in court records that no African-American had served as a deportation officer in Boston during his tenure, although he said he had recommended a black woman for a Hartford position and later promoted her to assistant field office director there. Chadbourne estimated that seven or eight Hispanic employees were deportation officers or supervisors during that time.

Federal lawyers also said rejection for ICE promotions is not unusual, pointing out in court records that Chadbourne himself had applied 25 times before he was selected as a deportation officer.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com.
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