Fleeing America

Post–9-11, Thousands of New York's Pakistanis Leave the U.S. Under Pressure

Then came special registration. Men with expired visas or those working without authorization had to choose whether to present themselves to authorities and face likely detention and deportation, or break one more immigration law by going further underground. Or, like Raza's 18-year-old brother and parents, leave the country. Community groups that had sprung up after 9-11 to assist detainees began to organize free legal clinics on registration requirements. In its storefront office on Coney Island Avenue, for instance, the Council of Pakistani Organizations (COPO) handled hundreds of such cases. Harder than drumming up pro bono attorneys to assist, admits director Mohammad Razvi, was knowing what to say when people asked him what they should do. "We explained the law," he says.

Many of those taking a chance in Canada are breaking their families apart. Raza was married on August 31 and had to implore distant relatives to offer the parental blessings that are part of the traditional ceremony. Missing his mother and father on this momentous day wasn't something he'd thought about back in February when he drove the family up to Buffalo so they could cross the border into Canada and ask for political asylum as Shiites fearing religious persecution in their homeland. "I feel so bad," he says. "But they didn't have any choice." They had wanted to spare Raza's younger brother from special registration because they worried that he would be deported to Pakistan. Unlike Raza, who holds a green card, his brother and parents have no valid U.S. documents.

Raza and his family had good reason to worry. Those men who did register and were found to have overstayed their visas or to be otherwise out of status were given "notices to appear" (NTAs)—dates when they would have to attend hearings before an immigration judge. Most will be sent away—even some with good arguments for staying. Ahmed, a 48-year-old grocery store worker, for instance, was sponsored by his employer for a green card more than two years ago. But sluggishness at the U.S. Labor Department, which must first issue work certification, has delayed the application. As a result, Ahmed was still officially undocumented when he showed up for special registration. Now, if his papers don't come through within a month or so, Ahmed may find himself on a plane to Islamabad for no reason other than bureaucratic lassitude.

That empty feeling: eerily calm Coney Island Avenue in Midwood
photo: Shiho Fukada
That empty feeling: eerily calm Coney Island Avenue in Midwood

As the NTA dates draw near for dozens of Midwood residents, a new wave of anxiety has clutched the community again.

A first-time visitor to the enclave might not notice anything amiss. A handful of stores amid the travel agents, kebab houses, and calling centers along Coney Island Avenue are shut up, but many more are open, and there appears to be plenty of activity: A man wearing traditional shalwar kameez holds forth with a man in an Iverson jersey, shouting over the Pakistani music video blaring out of a buffet restaurant; two women on a stoop argue in Punjabi about which of them spilled garbage in front of the building where they both live; toddlers and teens play on the sidewalks, squealing away the last days of summer. But anyone who lives there will tell you that it used to be so crowded on a late-summer evening that you had to weave like a running back to get down the street. On Fridays, worshipers at Makki mosque used to put prayer rugs down on Coney Island Avenue's sidewalk because there was no more room inside; nowadays the mosque is barely half full.

And business is on a relentless decline. Cumin seeds and ground coriander have not been moving at all at New Apna Bazaar, whose awning promises "Pako-Hind" provisions as well as Russian and kosher goods. (Midwood drew Pakistanis when they surged into New York in the early 1980s—pushed by martial law and pulled by U.S. immigration policies favorable to South Asian engineers and technicians—because the surrounding Jewish community had plenty of kosher butchers that could serve Muslims observing halal laws.) "We hardly survive here," says Apna's owner, Mohammad Iqbal, noting that business fell about 15 percent after 9-11 and then plummeted 40 percent more after the special-registration requirements were announced. Those selling less essential goods have fared even worse. Mahmoud, the owner of Rani Fabrics—one of many such shops that were for years a major draw for South Asians from all over the metropolitan area—has seen a 60 percent drop in sales. As for the once trendy gold jewelry stores on the avenue, several have closed. Those that remain have lost as much as 90 percent of their trade. At Pak Jewelers one day last week, the owner's teenage daughter Farrah Alizai, filling in for a laid-off clerk, didn't see her first customer until 6:30 pm.

Beyond the fear and declining population, those who remain in the area have less money to spend. When an undocumented owner of a thriving, 10-year-old Midwood construction business was deported earlier this year (despite a pending sponsor application and an appeal for asylum), 25 local workers were suddenly out of jobs. Such events, repeated on various scales, have affected the local economy all along the food chain. In the face of declining demand, Iqbal no longer keeps his grocery open 24 hours, so his three employees have seen their hours, and thus their incomes, cut.

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