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Malik Muhammad Akbar's doctor has warned him not to travel. The 66-year-old retired poultry farmer had heart surgery at Jacobi Medical Center in November and has also been diagnosed with chronic kidney failure and diabetes. The 18-hour flight to his native Pakistan would probably kill him, he says. That hasn't stopped the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from insisting on deporting him.
Like some 14,000 other undocumented immigrants, Akbar was ordered deported after he complied last year with "special registration," which required that men from 25 predominantly Muslim countries come to immigration offices for interviews and fingerprinting. After 15 months of what critics call large-scale racial profiling that tore families apart without uncovering a single terrorist, the government suspended the program last December, asserting that it had achieved its aim of more strictly enforcing immigration laws.
The repercussions are still being felt. A recent report presented to the 9-11 Commission by the Special Registrants Action Network (SRAN)a coalition of immigrant-advocacy and community groupsreveals families and whole communities struggling to cope with what the activists call the "devastating consequences" of the program.
Recent legislation proposed by congressional Democrats to enable millions of undocumented workers to become permanent residents or citizens makes no recommendations for reforming the draconian mandatory-detention and deportation laws imposed in 1996.
Akbar and his wife came to New York City in 2000 to visit their son and other relatives who live here legally. They had a six-month tourist visa, a five-month open-return ticket, and every intention of going back to Rawalpindi. "I was a healthy man when I came here," Akbar says, in the soft rasp of a man constantly short of energy and breath.
Akbar remembers how thrilled he was to see snow for the first time shortly after his arrival, but the New York winter was too much for him. A month into his visit, he contracted pneumonia and suffered a small heart attack. The treatment regimen involved frequent checkups and special medications, and his doctor said traveling was out of the question, so Akbar and his wife settled into a floor of a three-family house near relatives in the east Bronx. After eight months, he developed a kidney problem that required surgery.
One by one, the Akbars' four other grown children arrived from Pakistan to help look after him and earn money for his carewhich has run some $40,000 to date. All have come legally and have been sponsored for green cards. Once their applications are approved, they may request permanent residency for their father. But none of those bureaucratic processes will have been completed until long after Akbar is to be deportedwithin 90 days of the March 24 order. And if by some miracle he were to survive the journey, as a deportee he would be barred from re-entering the U.S. for 10 years.
Akbar knew that his visa had expired when special registration was announced, but figuring, "I had broken one rule and I didn't want to break a second rule," he went down to 26 Federal Plaza on March 18, 2003, and waited in line for 15 hours in the winter wind. He was put into deportation proceedings. At a November 13 hearing, he had to be excused when he started to feel faint and queasy. Two weeks later, he had the full-blown heart attack that required surgery. His immigration judge conceded that Akbar was not well enough to attend future hearings. But by law, judges are not allowed to exercise such discretion when it comes to deportation.
Now Akbar's only hope is a request for deferred actionan appeal made directly to the Department of Homeland Security. According to New York ICE spokesperson Mark Thorn, the case is under review. "No determination has been made," he says, "and no action is being taken pending a decision."
Akbar is trying to remain hopeful. After all, he asks, "Who would deny water to a man dying of thirst?"