Tabassum Faiz-Mohammad left her Glendale Heights home on Sunday, May 25, to see her husband off at the airport.
She could not kiss or hug him goodbye because of the handcuffs he wore and the immigration officials who encircled him. Her husband, Khalid, was being deported.
Faiz-Mohammad watched from afar, alongside her sobbing 11-year-old daughter, as officials led Khalid to the plane that would take him to Pakistan.
“I felt like my life walked out in front of me,” she said.
Khalid, 43, a Pakistani citizen who first came to the United States in 1988, was taken into custody on Feb. 4, after he reported to a Chicago office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to register under new federal rules designed to combat terrorism. On March 1, the INS was reorganized into three separate bureaus under the new federal Department of Homeland Security.
The National Security Entry-Exit Registration Program, known as special registration, was initiated by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. It requires that some male visitors from 25 countries, mostly Arab or Muslim nations, including Pakistan, be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted by immigration officials.
Since November, the Department of Homeland Security has detained more than 2,700 men nationwide, charging them with immigration violations uncovered during registration, such as overstaying their visas. Of those men, 130 had prior criminal convictions, according to the agency, and many others have been classified as potential security risks and deported.
Khalid was in the country illegally, although his wife and their daughter, Rabeal, are American citizens. The government says Khalid cannot return for 20 years.
Stories like the Faiz-Mohammads’ have created a climate of fear in local immigrant communities, especially among Chicago’s Pakistani families. Business leaders, activists and immigration attorneys said many Pakistanis have fled–”leaving behind their homes and businesses–”to escape special registration and its often drastic consequences.
“I have a lot of [Pakistani] clients,” said Carlina Tapia-Ruano, a Chicago immigration attorney. “But I don’t have a large group of clients I’m taking to register.”
Shaukat Sindhu, chairman of the Chicago-based Pakistani American Association of North America, said about 15,000 of the roughly 100,000 Pakistanis living in the Chicago area were required to register. But Sindhu believes nearly 4,000 of them fled the country.
“It’s a crowd psychology,” said Sunita Rodricks, director of women’s services at the South Asian Friendship Center, which lies in the heart of Chicago’s Indian and Pakistani business district at Devon and Talman avenues. “Nobody knows anything, but everyone is running scared.”
Faiz-Mohammad, who first came to the United States in 1986, said she had no idea how terrifying special registration would be for her family. She had prepared a meal for Khalid the day he went to register, expecting him to return that afternoon.
“There was not even a 1 percent chance that I thought he was going to be detained,” she said.
Desperate for a better life, Khalid gave a false name on his documents when he originally entered the country. After discovering the false name, immigration officials sent him back to Pakistan and, as a penalty, barred him from entering the country for one year. Khalid returned 17 months later with a fraudulent passport.
The Faiz-Mohammads married in 1990. Their daughter was born an American citizen in 1992. He found work as a self-employed cab driver, and she took a job at Bank One as an investment representative. In 1997, the couple moved from an apartment–”Faiz-Mohammad said, initially, they could barely scrape the rent together each month–”to a home they owned.
“We were able to accomplish everything we came here to,” said Faiz-Mohammad. In 1996, she filed a visa petition for her husband. That petition was still pending the day he walked into the INS to register.
Faiz-Mohammad said the ordeal has taken an emotional and financial toll on her entire family.
She said Rabeal’s grades have dropped a full letter at Churchill Elementary School in west suburban Glen Ellyn, and that the fifth-grader talks about her father constantly.
In an effort to help free her husband, and to talk and visit with him while he was being held in detention centers downstate and in Wisconsin, Faiz-Mohammad spent all of her savings–”close to $20,000–”on attorney’s fees, collect phone calls and lengthy road trips, she said. With only her part-time salary to support the family, Faiz-Mohammad said she can no longer afford her mortgage and has put her house up for sale.
She and her daughter plan to move in with an aunt while they save money to appeal Khalid’s deportation order and visit him in Pakistan this fall.
While the last registration deadline expired in April, 114 men across the country remained in custody a month later as a result of registering, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The department reported that, as of early May, 11 suspected terrorists have been identified as a result of the new federal tracking system. But terrorism experts question the system’s ability to improve homeland security.
“There’s no reason why the so-called –˜bad guys’ would register,” said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism intelligence and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.
“In my opinion, part of this is being done to reassure the general public and part of it is being done so that various government agencies can claim they’re doing something to curb the terrorism threat,” he said.
Faiz-Mohammad insists that her husband is not a terrorist and has no criminal record. “He doesn’t even have a parking ticket,” she said, adding that Khalid has not been to Pakistan in nearly 15 years.
If an appeal to the deportation order is not successful, Faiz-Mohammad fears the family will face even more hardships. Staying in America without her husband would be frowned upon by many of her Pakistani neighbors.
“That culture does not allow women without a husband [to live] very well,” she said. “We’re a very liberal family, but around us families are not.”
Returning to Pakistan would force Rabeal to grow up in what Faiz-Mohammad views as a male-dominated society–”one of the reasons she and her husband came to America in the first place.
“It [would be like] deporting an American girl and forcing her to live over there,” Faiz-Mohammad said. “What are we accomplishing by doing that?”
The stretch of Devon Avenue between California and Western avenues on the city’s Far North Side feels a lot like South Asia.
In this area, people speak Urdu and Hindi, men wear long shirts and pants, and women wear hijabs–”head scarves worn by Islamic women. Some haggle in sari stores and eat in restaurants that serve food from their region in Pakistan.
Business leaders there say the neighborhood has been forever changed. While the economy continues to lag nationwide, local Pakistani businessmen report an even sharper decline since some Pakistanis were called to register in December.
In that time, four Pakistani stores on Devon closed and 15 others lost merchants who rented space in their buildings, said Mohammad Ilyas Khokhar. He is vice president of Chicago’s Pakistani Business Association, a coalition of Pakistani American businessmen, mostly storeowners on Devon.
“Before, it was difficult to find parking, and every store was busy. Nowadays, you will not find people, either on the road or in the stores,” he said.
“I used to sell a couple of houses a week,” said Khokhar, a realtor. “Now I’m selling one house every couple of months.”
Alderman Bernard Stone, whose 50th Ward includes the business district, calls the special registration program “totally unfair to my Pakistani neighbors.”
“Certainly, the businessmen on Devon are the pillars of the community,” he said. “They’re good, loyal Americans, and I hate to see them harassed in this manner.”
Since special registration and the start of the Iraq war, Shah Qadri, one of the owners of Arena Travel on Devon, said his travel business has dropped 60 percent because Pakistanis are afraid of being detained at airports.
“If you come to Devon, it’s not like it used to be,” he said. “If it keeps like this, we’re going to close the business. –¦ It’s just not worth it.”
In January, at the South Asian Friendship Center, a group of four Christian men planning to register gathered in the center’s small back room for a prayer circle. They prayed in hushed voices: “Jesus, please help our brothers as they go to register.”
All of them said they had entered the country legally and were complying with visa rules, but were still terrified of being sent back to Pakistan for fear of religious persecution. In 1947, Pakistan was established as a state for Muslims, after which Hindus fled the region and Christians saw themselves as an oppressed minority.
“This is a kind of fear you cannot explain in words,” said Albert, a 32-year-old gas station worker who asked that his last name not be used. He came to Chicago from Pakistan in 2000, and now uses his salary to support his wife, 2-year-old son, and 10 brothers and sisters in Pakistan.
“I’m afraid. That’s all I can say.”
Government secrecy and a lack of information about special registration have helped to fuel the fear and confusion.
As of early May, more than 82,000 men had registered nationwide, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Of those men, nearly 13,000 were issued notices to appear in immigration court. Officials said they don’t have exact numbers of the people who registered or were detained in Chicago.
Registration is required of all male foreign visitors 16 years or older who are “nationals” or citizens of one of 25 countries, and who had entered the country through legal channels. But determining who qualifies as a national has become a point of contention.
Carol Hallstrom, a community relations officer with the Chicago office of the Department of Homeland Security, said nationality is determined primarily by the individual’s country of origin though the department also considers several other factors such as property holdings and family ties. Those who were unsure of their status were encouraged to register.
Rahim, a 28-year-old immigrant who was born in Pakistan but moved to Belgium when he was 9 months old, was angered by the ambiguous criteria. Rahim, who asked that his last name not be used, said he hasn’t visited Pakistan since he was an infant, does not have a Pakistani passport and has no connections to the country.
Rahim immigrated to Chicago from Belgium in 1994 on a temporary visitor visa. His fiancée, brother and two sisters all live in the United States. But Rahim had overstayed his visa and was scared of what awaited him if he registered.
“If I have to go back, it’s going to tear me apart,” he said.
At a community meeting this spring, he asked Hallstrom if he were required to register, given his tenuous ties to Pakistan.
“[If you have] any doubt, I say register,” Hallstrom told him.
Christopher Helt, a Chicago immigration attorney, said the vague and seemingly arbitrary standards frustrate even seasoned immigration lawyers. “I feel like I’m bringing lambs to the slaughter.”
Many immigrants awaiting word on their applications for permanent residency–”commonly referred to as green cards–”like Nadeem Ahmed, one of Helt’s clients, have been particularly vulnerable during special registration.
On Jan. 17, Ahmed arrived at the Chicago INS office, at 230 S. Dearborn St., carrying a neatly organized manila folder filled with correspondence documenting his arrival in Chicago on a visitor visa in August 2000.
Although he had overstayed his visa, Ahmed wasn’t overly nervous about registering. He had applied for a green card in November and was awaiting a decision. Helt assured Ahmed that he should have no problem.
Ahmed, who has lived in the Pakistani neighborhood near Devon Avenue since his arrival, left his wife and two young children at home that day. It would take $5,000 and four nights in DuPage County Jail before he could see them again.
Ahmed’s registration lasted the entire day. He was photographed and fingerprinted. During a lengthy interview, Ahmed gave his address, telephone number, hair color, eye color, height and weight. He also provided documents and contact information for his employer and family members.
After the interview, Ahmed said, he was told that he was “out of status” because he had overstayed his visitor visa. He was then taken into custody. Ahmed said the fact that he had applied for permanent residency several months ago didn’t seem to matter.
It wasn’t until Jan. 21 that Ahmed’s family was able to scrape together the $5,000 needed to bail him out.
Decisions about whether to detain foreign visitors are made on a case-by-case basis, said John Torres, assistant director of investigation at the Chicago office of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
Generally, he said, those who have overstayed their visas but have no criminal violations, and who are immediately eligible for a change in their visa status–”a Pakistani who married a U.S. citizen, for example–”may be released on their own recognizance or not charged at all.
Foreigners who have applied for permanent residency, like Ahmed, are not immediately eligible for changes in their visa status and thus could be charged and temporarily held, Torres said.
“That’s baloney,” said Stanley Horn, a Chicago immigration attorney. The process has “no rhyme or reason,” he said.
Some attorneys argue that immigrants who are immediately eligible for visa status changes were still put in immigration proceedings at the time of registration.
And others point out that “immediately eligible” rarely means just that. In Chicago, it could take two years to get a green card, according to Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Crystal Williams, a spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, based in Washington, D.C., said cases like Ahmed’s illustrate a common Catch-22 inherent to special registration.
“The very bureaucracy that is not acting on their application is turning around and arresting them,” she said. “There’s something pretty perverse in this.”
While in jail, Ahmed made a collect call to his family and spoke with his 4-year-old son. “I said, –˜I am out of town for my job,'” Ahmed said. “For my whole life, I will be ashamed.”
Despite the ordeal, Ahmed’s story may have a happy ending. Last month he was informed by immigration officials that his labor petition was approved. Ahmed said it’s likely he will get his green card, but he is wary of celebrating until he sees confirmation in writing.
“The first time I thought I heard him wrong,” he said. “This is very big news for this year, for me, for my family. … In this loss, I got something.”
Federal officials say the special registration program will help catch terrorists by tracking foreign nationals, a first step toward a comprehensive national tracking system spurred by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But critics say the program selectively targets men from mostly Arab and Muslim countries.
“This amounts to the rankest form of racial profiling,” said Adam Schwartz, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “It’s singling people out for this type of treatment based on national origin.”
Of the 25 countries on the special registration list, all but North Korea and Eritrea are mostly Muslim or Arab. The list has drawn comparisons to other infamous government programs targeting specific immigrant groups, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Several organizations, municipalities and politicians, including Amnesty International USA, the City of Chicago and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, have sent letters to the U.S. Department of Justice and to federal immigration officials objecting to special registration policies.
“Instead of identifying terrorists, some immigration offices have used special registration to identify and detain people who are on the path to permanent residence but who may have immigration problems because their paperwork has been neglected by immigration officials,” said Schakowsky, a Democrat whose 9th Congressional District includes the Pakistani neighborhood on Devon Avenue.
“This has resulted in hundreds of [immigrants] who are trying to comply with the law to be thrown in jail,” she said.
Despite the criticism, government officials maintain that special registration is not new, and immigration reformists insist the program is needed.
“The INS is enforcing immigration laws,” said Dave Gorak, executive director of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, based in west suburban Lombard. “There’s nothing discriminatory about it. You have to start somewhere.”
Australia, Japan and many European countries have had registration policies for years. In Germany, for example, all foreigners must register with the government when they establish residence and whenever they change addresses.
Until about 25 years ago, the INS required all non-citizens to register annually with the agency, said Tsao. The INS then started to loosen its registration policies and visa enforcement, with the exception of requiring registration of Iraqi and Kuwaiti nationals in the early 1990s, he said.
However, the government began to crack down on visa violations when investigators discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were in the country on expired tourist or student visas.
“This system will expand substantially America’s scrutiny of those foreign visitors who may pose a national security concern and enter our country,” Ashcroft said when he announced the new rules a year ago. “And it will provide a vital line of defense in the war against terrorism.”
Special registration is part of the federal government’s comprehensive tracking system, which by 2005 is designed to monitor all of the 35 million foreign visitors who visit and leave the United States annually. So far, two phases of the tracking system have been implemented.
Phase One began Sept. 11, 2002, and requires male visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria, and individuals who raise national security concerns, to complete a more extensive registration process when they enter the United States. In addition, those men have to return within 30 to 40 days of their arrival and again every 12 months after that to check in with the government.
Phase Two applies to men from 25 selected countries who were already residing within the United States and who legally entered on temporary visas. Those who do not have to register include permanent residents, refugees and some individuals who had applied for asylum.
“We have [35 million] people a year coming in, and it’s ridiculous not to keep track of the time limits on their visas,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank that promotes immigration enforcement.
Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the government has no plans to add more countries to the special registration list, although individuals who missed their deadlines can still register.
So far, the department has not announced any specific punishment for missing deadlines. However, the agency warns that men who comply with registration will be viewed more “favorably” by immigration officials, while those who don’t could jeopardize their pending or future immigration applications.
Homeland Security officers are responsible for enforcing special registration requirements.
“I’m not aware of any constructive plan to have the INS sweeping through the streets looking for people,” Hallstrom said at a recent community meeting in Chicago.
But she warned that intelligence agencies are sharing information. “At some point, there will be an increased likelihood that they will catch up with you.”
Ankur Bahl, Anna Johnson and Carrie Seim are reporters for the Medill News Service in Chicago.