Nestled among the restaurants and sari shops that anchor Devon Avenue in Chicago's South Asian community, First World Immigration Services Inc. has operated as a welcoming walk-in center for recently arrived immigrants. Like other storefront operations, it helped with visas, citizenship applications and other matters, its proprietors say.
But, as part of a widening probe into an international terror plot rooted in the city, U.S. authorities are sharpening their sights on the West Rogers Park agency in search of possible acts of Immigration fraud, according to sources familiar with the probe.
Federal prosecutors charge that the Immigration center served as a front in a Chicago-based terror plot to bomb a Danish newspaper that in 2005 outraged Muslims worldwide when it published unflattering caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
First World's owner, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, also knew in advance of plans for the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India, which killed 172 people, federal prosecutors allege.
Randall Samborn, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, said last week that federal authorities are working to determine the Immigration status of people who entered the U.S. with the agency's help. The alleged plot is one of several cases raising new concerns about U.S.-based terror plots.
Rana, who also owns a grocery store in Chicago and a halal meat plant in Kinsman, Ill., is in federal custody. He was arrested in October, along with another Chicagoan, David Coleman Headley, an alleged scout in the Denmark and Mumbai plots.
Both men have denied the charges.
Federal prosecutors allege that Rana, 48, helped Headley scout the newspaper's offices in Copenhagen and several other potential targets for terrorism by arranging to secure travel visas for Headley. Headley, 49, then allegedly posed as an agent of First World hoping to place an ad at the newspaper.
According to court filings, Rana also allegedly conspired to bring foreigners to the U.S. under false pretenses.
In e-mail conversations, Rana advised an alleged member of the militant Paskistani organization Lashkar-e-Taiba about "loopholes" to get individuals into the U.S., court filings say. The group is believed to have carried out the Mumbai attacks.
"Whenever you find easy way to come to U.S., immediately think there is a catch to it," Rana allegedly wrote in one e-mail, warning against using student visas. In another message, Rana allegedly suggested that one individual be brought in under a false occupation. "Make him a cook," the e-mail allegedly said. In another correspondence, Rana suggested a typewriter be used in an application that would include a false employer letter from 1983, noting that laser printers did not exist back then, prosecutors alleged.
Denying all the charges, Rana's lawyers have characterized the Canadian citizen as an upstanding businessman. Since the federal probe began, Rana's businesses have been effectively destroyed, his lawyers said.
Last week, the scene inside First World was quiet, with Rana's business partner, attorney Raymond Sanders, nonchalantly munching peanuts while a female co-worker dispensed advice to a client over the phone.
"We do all forms of American Immigration," said Sanders, who referred all other questions to his attorney, who did not return a telephone call.
However, others in Chicago's growing Pakistani community were eager to defend Rana, a man they know as a thoughtful former physician in his homeland who always has been willing to help people here in need. Rana, whose primary residence is in Chicago, first arrived to the city in 1997.
Friends say First World is popular among Pakistani and Indian immigrants.
"(Rana) is a very kind-hearted person," said Raja Muhammad Yaqub.
Yaqub, who knows Rana through their mosque, said Rana has helped fund a North Side health clinic that serves uninsured patients and has assisted non-Muslims as well as Muslims in his Immigration center.
"Mostly, those people who are poor, they come to him," Yaqub said. "If he was any kind of negative person, how can he help those who aren't part of his community?"