Holding Pattern

Another kind of 9/11 victim, Narinder Singh spent more than five years locked up for no crime at all

With an estimated 630,000 illegal immigrants who have ignored deportation orders and are at large today, few would disagree that some sort of detention system must be in place. But thanks to a disorganized, overcrowded bureaucracy, no one knows how many detainees are improperly or arbitrarily imprisoned for years. With no effective audit of the detainee population available, there's no way to know just how many immigrants have stories like Narinder Singh's.

Singh flew to New York in 1997 to visit a few uncles, but took one look at the city and decided to take a stab at living here. Since he already had a pharmacy degree from a university in India, he enrolled at St. John's University to work towards the equivalent degree in the United States; meanwhile, he worked the counter at his uncle's deli in Queens. In 1998, Singh met and married an American citizen, but divorced after a few years. Meanwhile, he found to his dismay that college costs were high and had to drop out.

In 1999, while working at the deli, Singh met Laura Pickering, who worked at a nearby bar. "She used to come here in my store and play some Lotto and drink some beer," Singh recalls. "Talk about this and that stuff. She used to come my to apartment, and we stay two, three years, then we got married."

Narinder Singh spent more than five years locked up in federal detention centers, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency still hasn't resolved his case.
photo: Filip Kwiatkowski
Narinder Singh spent more than five years locked up in federal detention centers, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency still hasn't resolved his case.

Andrew Thomson, a maintenance worker on Roosevelt Island, lives around the corner from Singh's old deli; his father Eddie, who died recently from a heart attack, was best man at Singh's wedding. "He met her working at the store, you know?" says Thomson, who attended the reception. "She was just a neighborhood lady; they became good friends, and they took it from there. . . . It happens, you know? People fall in love. Like I said, you don't even have to be the same color—you can be the same sex nowadays and it's all right. But he was in love with that girl, I know that."

In 2000, Singh applied for permanent-resident status based on his marriage, but the process was slow, and years went by without any progress. Meanwhile, he gave up on the deli and started driving a cab around town. He met his friend Gujral Grewal while on the job, and the two of them decided to buy a business together. "We went to Alabama to look for businesses; we looked for businesses all over. I traveled all over with him," Grewal says. "We just wanted to run a small business. None of us could buy it by ourselves. So we just pooled it together to start it that way. It's what immigrants do. We were looking at gas stations or grocery stores."

But then Singh's mother died, and he had to lay her to rest in Punjab. His friends warned him that in the wake of 9/11, it might not be the best time to be a South Asian walking around in airports. "We told him not to go during that time, because of what was happening with the government," Thomson says. "But if you were told your mother was dying and this was the last time you could see her, what would you do?" Singh got permission from the federal government to leave the country, and off he went.

On April 15, 2002, Singh flew back to JFK, where his wife was waiting to pick him up. But an immigration official began to ask Singh questions about his marriage. Hours went by, and Laura demanded to know why her husband was being detained. Over a speakerphone, he heard officials threaten her with prison for participating in a sham marriage.

ICE officials refused to comment on Singh's case because there is still an outstanding deportation case against him. "It's ICE policy not to comment on any aspect of file information for a case that is before a court," says spokesman Mark Thorn. But according to immigration-court documents, the immigration officer found numerous discrepancies between Singh's account of the marriage and his wife's. In addition, the officer called Singh's home number and reached someone named "Victor," who claimed he lived there. According to Singh, that was actually his friend Nirvail Singh, who was visiting the couple but didn't speak English very well and misunderstood the officer's questions. The officer concluded that the marriage was a fraud and ordered Singh deported. Singh says that he then spent 48 hours chained to a chair.

"I cannot use the bathroom," he says. "The next day, the officer come. . . . He say, 'OK, what you decide? You have to go back.' I say I not decide to go back. I have to see wife. I have to see my lawyer. He say OK. And he not do anything for next day, next shift. . . . I can't sleep, I can't eat anything. Forty-eight hours after that, they put me in detention center."

Singh was in lockup at Brooklyn's Wackenhut detention facility for months, waiting for his case to come before an immigration judge. Meanwhile, immigration officials conducted a more thorough Stokes interview (named, like the Miranda warning, after the case that created it, Stokes v. INS) of Singh and his wife, to determine whether their marriage was legitimate. During the appeal on October 9, the immigration judge reviewed the interview and ruled that the marriage was initially valid—however, he added, he found that the marriage was no longer viable. Since Singh's official permission to leave the country and return was based on his marriage to an American citizen, and since that marriage was now fraudulent, he had lost the right to re-enter to the country and therefore would have to be deported.

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