Save the Date

His Queens wedding plans in doubt, Tauqir Zafar Rizvi waits in immigrant detention

The wedding date is set: May 6 at the Kebab King Diner, a halal establishment in Jackson Heights. In accordance with Pakistani custom, the groom's family has put down the deposit for a reception for 250 guests the next day at the Sterling, a large catering hall in Long Island. The bride, a 28-year-old pharmacy tech, is ready. But the groom is in jail.

On March 17, 2006, Tauqir Zafar Rizvi was picked up by immigration authorities and later sent to the Hudson Correctional Facility in Hudson, New York. His story is a typical maze of regulation. Immigration contends that he broke the law by visiting Pakistan in 2002 while still without a green card. At the time, his family says, he was married to a U.S. citizen and had interviewed twice for a green card on that basis; he applied for and received "advanced parole" before taking the trip, which was supposed to be an official OK to go and return despite his limbo status. When he got divorced in 2003, he filed again for permission to stay here based on employment, a so-called "labor cert"; he stayed, his case pending, until Immigration came calling.

His loved ones don't understand why he was picked up now. No criminal charges have been brought against him. "I was in shock," said his bride, Almas, who asked to be identified by her first name only and who spoke through an interpreter. "I knew something was wrong right away because he always calls me every day. I thought everything was fine, his paperwork was in order, because why else would he be able to travel?"

Rizvi has several strategic advantages over the estimated 2,500 South Asians from New York City who have been detained or deported over the past five years. He owns a souvenir store in midtown and pays his taxes. And the person he's engaged to happens to be a U.S. citizen, which could be grounds to file for an adjustment of his immigration status and "relief from removal," removal being another term for deportation.

Perhaps most important of all, though, he has Mohammed Razvi on his side. Moe, as he is known, has emerged as a crucial leader in the city's South Asian community since 9-11. He was once a successful businessman, owning restaurants, groceries, and 99-cent stores around Coney Island Avenue in Midwood, Brooklyn, but gradually he has sold these or handed management duties over to his brothers so that he can sit in his cramped back office at the Council of Peoples Organization (COPO) and hear stories like Rizvi's, of people caught in the wide net of the war on terror.

"They go and pick up Joe Schmo and he has nothing to do with what they're looking for," Razvi says. "So they check on his INS paperwork. And it's, 'What's your status? You're on overstay. Come back in two days with a ticket that you're leaving the country and we'll give you your passport back. Otherwise you're detained.' These are the things that are happening." Cyrus Mehta, a lawyer who does pro bono work on behalf of people who come to COPO, says there's nothing prohibiting such sharing of information between various state and federal agencies. "If during an investigation it's revealed that someone is 'out of status,' they invariably turn him over to [immigration]," says Mehta. "There's absolutely no legal impediment. It's not desirable but this is quite routinely done."


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Tauqir Zafar Rizvi with his fiancée, Almas.
photo: Courtesy of COPO
Over a thousand similar stories crowd COPO's office, in plain manila folders with copies of correspondence sent to the FBI, the ICE (the new acronym for immigration services, which Razvi and most everyone else still call the INS), and the NYPD's Joint Terrorism Task Force. An estimated 500 people disappeared from the neighborhood in the two weeks after 9-11 alone, and the detentions have continued even as acronyms and policies have changed. The "special registration" of 2002–2003, for example, with its extra interview requirements for immigrants from certain countries, is gone, and yet you can get removed now if you didn't cooperate with the rules back then. People call COPO from as far away as Canada to ask for help locating and freeing relatives. Copies of articles from Newsday and the Voice, featuring people pulled from Razvi's files, are clipped to his window blinds. Sometimes a bit of well-timed pressure or publicity leads to a family reunion.

Razvi serves on a Muslim-American Advisory Board to the FBI and ICE, part of a community outreach program maintained in several big American cities. For April 18 he has organized a town hall forum in Jackson Heights, where members of the community can speak to representatives of ICE and the FBI directly; Tauqir Rizvi's story will be one of the ones that get told there. Martin Ficke, of ICE, set to appear, says he welcomes the work of the advisory board. "I think it's gone a long way to breaking down some of the misunderstanding that is going on," Ficke argues. "The important thing for people to understand is that our main emphasis is on aliens who are committing crimes. If you commit a crime in the U.S., it doesn't matter what your country of origin, you will be on our radar."

Yet despite these assurances, the outcome of some cases makes Mohammed Razvi worry about the safety of his own advocacy work. For an example, he pulls the file of a taxi driver who was turned in last summer by a fare. She had asked him his opinion of Bush and he replied, "He's an asshole. If I had a gun, I'd shoot him." Soon, the Secret Service turned up at the cabbie's door. Terrified, unable to afford a lawyer, he went to Razvi. "I called up the Secret Service—I've never been that nervous," Razvi says. "They put me on speakerphone. I give them all my information and say, this guy is working, he has a medallion, he didn't mean it that way. They say, OK, tell him to come in Wednesday afternoon, we'll question him with an attorney present. I found him an attorney pro bono." The meeting never happened—instead, Wednesday morning, the taxi driver was picked up by immigration and subsequently deported.

Cases like these are why COPO has asked the New York Civil Liberties Union to put in a Freedom of Information request on its behalf, to find out what kind of files the FBI is keeping on it. In all, the NYCLU filed requests on 14 political and religious organizations on March 14, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York and the New York Immigration Coalition. This is part of a national campaign to uncover surveillance of anti-war, immigrant-advocacy, and pro-Muslim groups; the ACLU has filed similar requests in 20 states on behalf of more than 150 organizations and individuals. "When you have a government that refuses to distinguish between lawful protest and criticism and terrorism, then all the critics have to worry, and everyone has to worry because we're all critics at one point or another," says Donna Lieberman of the NYCLU.

For Razvi and the people he helps, the stakes are high. If he finds out there has been surveillance, he says, "I'm gonna clear my database. I'm not going to endanger anybody. That's wrong. I'm supposed to keep people safe—I'm a gatekeeper." In the meantime, he has high hopes that Tauqir Rizvi will make his wedding.

"He's been calling here every day from jail," says Almas. "He says, keep praying, everything is going to be OK, don't worry."

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