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He may be a hero, but can he stay in U.S.?

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2003


Pro basketball player Kwame James helped subdue would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid on a flight across the Atlantic in December 2001. One hundred ninety-seven people, many of them Americans, were aboard.

Now, James, a Canadian who grew up in Trinidad, wants a work permit that would allow him to keep playing basketball in the United States. He says he should be granted one in part because of his heroics.

But immigration officials have said no -- heroics notwithstanding.

James has only a few weeks to change their mind; his visitor's visa expires at the end of April. He has hired a lawyer and sought help from a New York congressman to pressure immigration authorities into allowing him to stay.

"He put himself in harm's way and prevented a horrible situation from occurring," said Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y. "It can only be a small measure of U.S. thanks to him risking his life for so many American citizens."

Immigration authorities call James' case "compelling," but say he doesn't deserve special treatment.

"I can understand where he is coming from, but we do have a set of immigration laws which govern how everyone is treated and those rules are consistent regardless of what a person has done," says Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the old Immigration and Naturalization Service, which became part of the Department of Homeland Security earlier this month.

The 6-foot-8, 250-pound power forward, who played at the University of Evansville, said immigration officials promised him a work permit during Reid's trial, but reneged once the defendant pleaded guilty. Immigration authorities say they were unaware of such an agreement.

James, who has played professionally in France and Argentina, aspires to compete in the NBA. He has had brief stints in the Continental Basketball Association and the National Basketball Developmental League.

"I'm just trying to let people know about my situation," said James, who turned 25 last Thursday and said he is running out of money. "It's not about being deported. It's about trying to get a work permit that would allow me to stay here, train and continue to get better so that I can have a chance at the NBA."

Michael Wildes, who has represented a number of immigrants affected by the Sept. 11 attacks and is representing James, said the government should help someone who thwarted a terrorist act against American citizens.

"This should undoubtedly have worked out in a way that he would have been rewarded for his heroism and uncanny bravery," said Wildes.

A number of visas allow foreigners to work in the United States. James can apply for many of them, but he and Wildes say none will allow him the freedom to chase his dream.

For instance, the most common work permit is the H1B visa that allows a foreigner, sponsored by a company, to work in his/her specific field of study. James has a degree in International Business, but he said no company will sponsor him for such a visa knowing that he could be traveling from city to city and team to team.

While hundreds of noncitizens are playing professional basketball in the United States, James does not qualify for any of those visas because he has yet to sign with a team, which could then sponsor him.

James said nonprofessionals who train in the United States, like Olympic hopefuls, are commonly sponsored by corporate firms or external governments and therefore have no need to work.

James said he was given the option to seek refugee status but isn't sure from what he would be seeking asylum.

"I'm fully aware of all those things," James said. "But they were very willing to work something out when they thought they needed me to testify against Reid and I would have to stay in the country. As soon as they didn't need me, they said there was nothing they could do. I just want to take care of myself."

Strassberger said immigration officials have some -- but not much -- latitude.

"There is some discretion that the INS has but that (has) to be in extreme situations," Strassberger said. "If his lawyer is aware of such a process then he should take whatever measures he can to help his client."

One such measure would be to get someone in Congress -- such as Crowley -- to sponsor a bill to grant James permanent residence status.

Recently, Wildes said, immigration authorities extended relief to immigrant spouses of two people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

British national Deena Gilbey lost her husband on Sept. 11 and had not finalized her documents. Russian national Vascily Rijob, whose wife had won a Green Card lottery, also perished in the attacks. Both faced expulsion had officials not stepped in.

"The INS was willing to leave these people's children without any parents in the U.S. had we not beseeched them to do what was morally right," Wildes said. "It underscores the need to do what is morally right for Kwame."

Born in a suburb of Toronto but raised in Trinidad by parents who both have doctorate degrees, James came to the United States at 13 and became a standout high school player in Indianapolis.

While Bob Knight was still at Indiana University, he recruited James, but James said he was not comfortable with Knight's personality. He chose Evansville instead.

After four seasons with the Aces, James signed with La Union, a pro team outside Buenos Aires, Argentina. After a year, James joined Paris-based Bondy, where he averaged 12.3 points and 9 rebounds per game.

He was on his way home for the Christmas break on Dec. 22, 2001. Awakened from sleep aboard American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami, James said he heard the voices of panic and struggle about 10 rows back.

As the biggest man on the plane, James said he knew he had to help control Reid, who was reportedly 6-foot-4 and more than 200 pounds and was attempting to ignite explosives in his shoes.

"First of all, it wasn't just me," James said. "There were a number of people who got to Reid before I did and deserve to be considered heroes just as well."

Once Reid was tied down, the pilot asked James to stand guard over Reid for the next three hours as the plane made an emergency landing in Boston.

"God put me in that situation," he said. "All the Sept. 11 flights had four or five suspects and the initial thought of everyone was Reid wasn't acting alone. I was 23 at the time and thinking about my whole life (ending)."

Wildes said his office recently received correspondence from an American Airlines pilot who had heard about James' plight and promised to inform the Airline Pilots Association.

"There is great interest from the pilots and we hope to pursue that avenue," Wildes said. Wildes points out that the same agency that won't issue James a work permit also authorized student visas for a number of the Sept. 11 terrorists.

"I'm not saying you give a free pass, per se," Wildes says. "But considering they give out 55,000 Green Cards on a random lottery every year, then certainly someone like (Kwame) has earned a right to stay and this should be respected."

Strassberger said that is an unfair comparison.

"That's apples and oranges," he said. "That argument can be made and the INS hears those arguments a thousand times a year. This circumstance is compelling, but you just can't give in every day when people want you to stem the law or ignore the law. Then we would run into serious problems."

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