By Anna Merlan
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The telephone call, at once dreaded and long awaited, broke the unnatural calm.
A reporter, an Urdu-English translator, and two immigrant advocates were sitting with Razia Sultana last Tuesday on the floor of her living room in the traditional style, on top of a large sheet of fabric and cushions spread over the carpet. The apartment, in Jamaica, Queens, was spare and spotless. Window shades softened the afternoon sun. The visitors received mugs of creamy, spiced coffee and plates of butter cookies. Razia's daughter, home sick from the first grade, entered occasionally to hug her mother and grin at the guests. The benign atmosphere and hospitality belied Razia's true state. "I am living in tension throughout," she said.
Her husband, Shabi Ul Hassan, had been arrested at home December 12 for lacking legal immigration papers and remained in jail. He had been calling every day, but now Razia had not heard from him in a week. Rumors were circulating in New York's Pakistani community that a large group of detainees would be deported at any moment.
Razia, Shabi, and their nine-year-old sonwho are natives of Pakistanand two younger children who were born here face being uprooted from an established life of eight years in New York, because the three non-Americans are here illegally. In this way they are no different from thousands of others flushed out in the accelerated sweep for undocumented immigrants since the terrorist attacks of 2001. Yet the family has argued that special circumstances should make them an exception. It is an uphill claim in a climate of enforcement where the common denominator among undocumented immigrantstheir illegal statusseems to trump their individual histories.
Until the telephone rang, Razia's polite composure had not faltered, even as she described the predawn visit from law enforcement agents that preceded her husband's arrest. Two plainclothes officers pounded on the front door at 4:40 a.m., she said, waking her and the children. Shabi was out working a night joba struggling plumber and carpenter, he took work whenever he could find itso she declined to open the door. Since her English is limited, Razia phoned a neighbor, who joined the officers outside to translate.
The agents did not identify themselves as immigration authorities, she said. "They said they were police. They told me, 'Open the door.' They told me they were here for a theft two years before." Razia said the family had in fact reported a burglary to the police some years earlier, although so long ago that she could not recall precisely when. "They told me they had recovered some things, and that I should see if they were ours." She told them to come back in a few hours, when her husband would be home.
When the authorities returned later that morning, Shabi was there to greet them. "He talked to them, thinking they were here for the burglary," said Razia. But the agents showed Shabi a photograph and social security number, and he confirmed that they were his. They examined his identification documents. "They asked about the children. They checked their birth certificates and the passports of everyone, and asked what schools they go to," Razia said. "After that, they told my husband to come with them. They removed his shoelaces."
"I asked them, 'Where are you taking him?' " said Razia. "They said, 'We don't know.' " The Justice Department told the Voice last week that Shabi had been wanted on a deportation order since 1996, when the government denied his application to become a legal resident.
The pretense of the burglary investigation spooked Razia, she said, because it was not a mere fabrication but based on true information about the family. An immigration agency spokesperson would not comment on the circumstances of the arrest, but NYPD spokesperson Deputy Chief Michael Collins said, "That [burglary] information may have been made available to another agency, through databases, and somebody decided to use it as a ruse. We would assist other law enforcement authorities seeking information on a person wanted." Joint arrests by immigration authorities and local police have become commonplace, but Collins said that no one in the police department had any knowledge of the cops' reported solo visit on December 12.
In the three months since her husband was detained, Razia said she has not received a single update from the government. Her knowledge of his whereabouts has come mainly through phone calls from him. Advocates from Families for Freedom, an organization she met through community word-of-mouth, have also assisted her in tracking him down as he was transferred between local jails.
Razia discovered that she and her nine-year-old son, Al Faisal, have also been labeled deportable by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service), although they have not been detained. Al Faisal and his two younger, U.S.-born siblings all attend the local public elementary school.
The family's convoluted past has caught up with them. Shabi has said in legal papers to the immigration agency that, beginning in 1989, he belonged to the Pakistani dissident group, Muttahida Quami Movement. The United Nations, the press, and the U.S. State Department have documented how police in Pakistan, known for being political, have used violence to punish MQM activists. Shabi claims that the bullet wounds in his leg and chest are proof.