By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Then, in February, DHS sent out a blast of letters to people who were already refugees and asylees.
In April, the government agreed to reopen the cases. In July, 10 more groups got exceptions, and the government admitted that the majority of people who got letters would have been eligible for them. In September, advocates met with high-level officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of Homeland Security. Nezer, who was present at the meeting, which was attended by around 20 people, says officials told her the cases were still held up and that there was no foreseeable end in sight. She says that officials in Immigration Services appear to understand the problem, and she suspects that the stalemate is coming directly from higher levels in the refugee policy department of Homeland Security.
"We have to make sure that our national security interests are at the forefront of everything we do, but we are committed to keeping our asylum and refugee processing system open for the intended purpose that it was instated, and that our humanitarian concerns and the goodwill of this nation will move forward," says Chris Rhatigan, USCIS spokeswoman. Asked whether these two purposes have ever been at odds, Rhatigan said that wasn't the case, but added that the government must err on the side of caution.
When questioned as to whether the government didn't already have the information needed to judge affiliations prior to denying green cards to hundreds of people, Rhatigan explained that the process involves discussions with the State Department. (Partha Mazumdar, a State Department expert on Bangladesh, says that the United States has never considered the Mukti Bahini to be a terrorist organization.)
"We're told that making decisions about these groups is a very long and difficult process," Nezer says. "For the Montagnard waiver, they told us, in meeting after meeting, 'This is very complicated.' And then when the waiver comes out, it's a paragraph long."
Nezer believes that the problem is much simpler than the government admits and could easily be solved—the new Obama administration could fix things in less than a month, if it wants to.
Mohammed Rasul is serving fried chicken to his customers in the South Bronx. They stream in steadily throughout the day—high-schoolers on their lunch break, moms, older folk lounging around the sidewalk. Mostly everyone is African-American. They order from a menu that is displayed along the wall and organized into sections: chicken nuggets, chicken combo, chicken breast, and just chicken.
"I used to have a people problem, but now I have a government problem," says Rasul, 50. He serves the chicken in paper boxes with American flag decorations, passing it under a Plexiglas wall that divides the tidy kitchen from the waiting area on the other side of the counter. By "people problem," he's referring to when he first took over the restaurant, when drug dealers would loiter in front of the store and often toss beer bottles into the windows. When the word "Taliban" came into the American vocabulary, people called him that, too. But now, he feels he has won the neighborhood's trust. He knows many customers' orders by heart, and if an order takes too long in the kitchen, he'll usually throw an extra piece of chicken into the box. He belongs to a union and wakes up early to take his kids to a special-education elementary school in Queens.
Since he received his letter from Homeland Security, he says, his nerves are shot. "I don't know what's going on with that American government. You're thinking I'm terrorist? Where is your witness, and where is your proof? Is it only because my name is Mohammed and my religion is Muslim? I swear I don't know who is Osama. I heard about him on TV."
He sits down for a short break between customers. "I work too hard in this country. I'm tired from my life."
Unlike Karmakar, it took Rasul 10 years of working through the immigration system to obtain asylum. Now, it seems as if he is starting all over again.
"Who is the big man in America who decided this?" asks Rasul. "Where is he so that he can look at me face-to-face? I want him to look in my heart and tell me that I am a criminal."