Fighting the Tide
The telephone call, at once dreaded and long awaited, broke the unnatural calm.
A reporter, an Urdu-English translator, and two immigrant advocates were sitting with Razia Sultana last Tuesday on the floor of her living room in the traditional style, on top of a large sheet of fabric and cushions spread over the carpet. The apartment, in Jamaica, Queens, was spare and spotless. Window shades softened the afternoon sun. The visitors received mugs of creamy, spiced coffee and plates of butter cookies. Razia's daughter, home sick from the first grade, entered occasionally to hug her mother and grin at the guests. The benign atmosphere and hospitality belied Razia's true state. "I am living in tension throughout," she said.
Her husband, Shabi Ul Hassan, had been arrested at home December 12 for lacking legal immigration papers and remained in jail. He had been calling every day, but now Razia had not heard from him in a week. Rumors were circulating in New York's Pakistani community that a large group of detainees would be deported at any moment.
Razia, Shabi, and their nine-year-old sonwho are natives of Pakistanand two younger children who were born here face being uprooted from an established life of eight years in New York, because the three non-Americans are here illegally. In this way they are no different from thousands of others flushed out in the accelerated sweep for undocumented immigrants since the terrorist attacks of 2001. Yet the family has argued that special circumstances should make them an exception. It is an uphill claim in a climate of enforcement where the common denominator among undocumented immigrantstheir illegal statusseems to trump their individual histories.
Until the telephone rang, Razia's polite composure had not faltered, even as she described the predawn visit from law enforcement agents that preceded her husband's arrest. Two plainclothes officers pounded on the front door at 4:40 a.m., she said, waking her and the children. Shabi was out working a night joba struggling plumber and carpenter, he took work whenever he could find itso she declined to open the door. Since her English is limited, Razia phoned a neighbor, who joined the officers outside to translate.
The agents did not identify themselves as immigration authorities, she said. "They said they were police. They told me, 'Open the door.' They told me they were here for a theft two years before." Razia said the family had in fact reported a burglary to the police some years earlier, although so long ago that she could not recall precisely when. "They told me they had recovered some things, and that I should see if they were ours." She told them to come back in a few hours, when her husband would be home.
When the authorities returned later that morning, Shabi was there to greet them. "He talked to them, thinking they were here for the burglary," said Razia. But the agents showed Shabi a photograph and social security number, and he confirmed that they were his. They examined his identification documents. "They asked about the children. They checked their birth certificates and the passports of everyone, and asked what schools they go to," Razia said. "After that, they told my husband to come with them. They removed his shoelaces."
"I asked them, 'Where are you taking him?' " said Razia. "They said, 'We don't know.' " The Justice Department told the Voice last week that Shabi had been wanted on a deportation order since 1996, when the government denied his application to become a legal resident.
The pretense of the burglary investigation spooked Razia, she said, because it was not a mere fabrication but based on true information about the family. An immigration agency spokesperson would not comment on the circumstances of the arrest, but NYPD spokesperson Deputy Chief Michael Collins said, "That [burglary] information may have been made available to another agency, through databases, and somebody decided to use it as a ruse. We would assist other law enforcement authorities seeking information on a person wanted." Joint arrests by immigration authorities and local police have become commonplace, but Collins said that no one in the police department had any knowledge of the cops' reported solo visit on December 12.
In the three months since her husband was detained, Razia said she has not received a single update from the government. Her knowledge of his whereabouts has come mainly through phone calls from him. Advocates from Families for Freedom, an organization she met through community word-of-mouth, have also assisted her in tracking him down as he was transferred between local jails.
Razia discovered that she and her nine-year-old son, Al Faisal, have also been labeled deportable by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service), although they have not been detained. Al Faisal and his two younger, U.S.-born siblings all attend the local public elementary school.
The family's convoluted past has caught up with them. Shabi has said in legal papers to the immigration agency that, beginning in 1989, he belonged to the Pakistani dissident group, Muttahida Quami Movement. The United Nations, the press, and the U.S. State Department have documented how police in Pakistan, known for being political, have used violence to punish MQM activists. Shabi claims that the bullet wounds in his leg and chest are proof.
He describes being beaten during a 15-day imprisonment, along with 25 other MQM members, after police raided his home. He decided immediately after that to leave the country.
The family applied for political asylum when they arrived in the U.S. in 1995, they claim in their immigration filings. They say that they handed over key documents, including original ethnic newspaper clippings naming Shabi as an MQM member, to an immigration lawyer named Charles A. Grutman. They never heard how their asylum application turned out. Last year, Grutman was prosecuted in federal court for stealing government money and was suspended from practicing law for seven years, according to the U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review.
After Shabi was arrested in December, the family hired a second lawyer on borrowed money to fight the detention. But that lawyer failed to mention in legal papers Shabi's fears of political persecution or the previous counsel's criminal prosecution and suspensionthe family's two strongest arguments for winning their case. Advocates say many immigrants become victims of fraudulent or incompetent counsel, given their limited English and ignorance of the U.S. legal system.
So when a week passed without word from her husband, Razia could only assume the worst. Then news suddenly arrived during her interview with a reporter. Another detainee at the Hudson County jail in New Jersey, where Shabi was last heard from, was calling to say her husband had been shipped off to Buffalo, in upstate New York. Buffalo, explained the community advocates in the room, is a way station for Pakistani detainees who are about to be flown out of the country. Razia broke into tears, covering her mouth with a napkin.
"His life is in danger over there," she said, imagining her husband's return to Pakistan. She could never support three children alone in New York, she said, so they would all have to leave if her husband left, even though the two youngest, ages five and six, had never set foot on Pakistani soil.
But Shabi had not been deported yet, the advocates hastened to point out. Razia's six-year-old daughter, who had been told her father was traveling on business, gave her mother a smile and kissed her cheek. That afternoon, the rush to stop Shabi's looming deportation kicked into emergency gear.
The family contacted the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, where a pro bono lawyer filed an emergency motion to stay deportation based on political concerns and poor legal representation in the past. Mark Thorn, spokesman for the New York area Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, would not comment on Shabi's chances. Thorn said, "It's policy not to discuss the status of any case that is before a court." In theory, someone cannot be deported until his motion is considered.
As of press time, the afternoon of Monday, March 17, Shabi was still in Buffalo. Razia and the children were still in Queens.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.