Man accused of lying to gain citizenship

BROWNSVILLE — A man pleaded not guilty Wednesday to accusations he lied during his naturalization application, including failing to disclose that he was a member of a Palestinian organization labeled as a terrorist group by the United States.

George Zahi Rafidi, 42, of Brownsville, is charged in a superseding March 5 indictment with attempted procurement of citizenship contrary to law; use of an immigration document procured by false statement or fraud; false statement under oath in a matter relating to naturalization; two counts of false statement of representation; and false statement on a loan and credit application.

Rafidi was initially charged in April 2018 with two counts relating to allegations that he failed to disclose his alleged membership with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a “specially designated terrorist” organization, court documents indicate.

Rafidi’s criminal defense attorney, Reynaldo “Trey” Garza III, said his client maintains his innocence.

“Mr. Rafidi maintains that he is innocent and that he is not involved or has ever been involved in activity alleged by the government,” Garza said, adding that they are seeking a resolution to the case either through trial or negotiations with the government.

Rafidi is also being represented by attorney Nicole Marie Eymard in immigration court.

According to the indictment, Rafidi allegedly lied about his membership in the group when he entered the United States on a tourist visa and then applied for political asylum, which was eventually granted.

The U.S. government alleges that Rafidi did not tell immigration officials in 1997 when he applied for political asylum that the Israeli Defense Forces charged him with membership in an illegal organization, the Popular Front; throwing stones toward vehicles; activities against public order by participating in disorderly conduct by flying flags and writing slogans on behalf of the Popular Front; and violating the peace of the region by trying to broker a weapons purchase.

A few months after the Israeli Defense Forces charged Rafidi, he reached a plea agreement, and was convicted of membership in an illegal organization, the Popular Front, and for activities against public order by participating in disorderly conduct by flying flags and writing slogans, according to the indictment.

The indictment states that Rafidi was sentenced to 18 months in prison, eight of which were probated, before being released early during a prisoner exchange between Jordan and Israel.

When Rafidi made his asylum claim at the end of 2000, he told officials that he was politically active in Palestine by participating in the Intifada — the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and by being elected as a member of the student body at Beirzeit University.

The indictment details Rafidi telling officials that those activities drew the Israeli government’s attention, resulting in what he said were false accusations that he belonged to Hamas — another organization the U.S. designates as a terrorist group — and threw stones at soldiers.

However, Rafidi did not disclose the Popular Front conviction during his asylum process, according to the indictment.

He is also accused of lying on his application to become a lawful permanent resident and on his application for U.S. citizenship.

He is scheduled for a jury trial on April 8.