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Going Home in Handcuffs: A Pakistani's Story - 2003-07-30


During the past year and a half, the U.S. government has been selectively enforcing immigration laws that were for many years overlooked. Before the September 11, 2001, attacks, immigration officials said publicly their focus was on catching and deporting illegal immigrants who committed crimes, not those who merely overstayed visas. But since then, law enforcement agents have been seeking out undocumented men from countries thought to have a history of al-Qaeda presence. Several thousand Arab and South Asian immigrants have been deported, and many feel double-crossed.

When Ajaz Ahmad first got a visa to come to the United States, he rode his bicycle home with his passport in his shoe. "I don't want to lose that passport! I don't want to lose it," he explained.

Ajaz's father died when he was 16. His family was poor and Ajaz was making only about $30 a month. There were bills to pay, weddings for his brothers and sisters to finance. So when Ajaz finally got his visa at age 24, he left for New York in a hurry. Within days of arriving, he got an off-the-books job working overnights at a Yonkers gas station. He tuned the radio in his booth to station WKTU 103.5. It was 1994.

"Whenever people wanted gas, they give me money and I open the pump and they put gas and they left," recalled Ajaz. "There is nothing to do with English anything. After six months, I was crying because I don't know how to talk. And a lot of girls want to talk."

Ajaz is 2 meters tall, with a flirtatious grin. He says his Pakistani roommate told him, ask a girl for her phone number, talk to her on the phone. So he got a number from one of his customers, a Puerto Rican nurse who worked nights as well.

"Night finish, I go home, I don't want to eat, I don't want to sleep, I don't want to go to the bathroom, I just want to call the lady," he said. "I call her and she say, 'Yeah? You don't speak English so why don't you meet me and I can teach you.' I go to her house and then she teach me a lot of English. She teach me that you gotta talk to the people!"

Ajaz learned quickly: "How are you? How old are you? What's your business? How many kids you have and blah blah blah, all that stuff. Believe me after three months, I can talk with everybody," he recalled.

He got a social security card, a drivers' license, a car. America was living up to all his expectations.

Over the years, Ajaz worked his way from cashier at 7-11 to general manager of half a dozen fast-food outlets in New York and New Jersey. He was making around $30,000 a year, paying taxes, sending money home and becoming more and more enamored of the American high life.

Ajaz was engaged to a Pakistani woman his parents had chosen for him, and in 1999, he arranged for her to join him in the United States. She came on a visitor's visa, and they were married. Then last January, while she was pregnant with their first child, Ajaz was arrested and taken to jail. He was easy to find: investigators came one morning to the Taco Bell he managed.

"I opened the store, I was very nice, beautiful, you know, like, gel in my hair, shaved and perfumed and everything," he said. They ask me, 'What's your name?' I say, 'Ajaz.' 'We want to talk to you. You have a green card?' I say 'no.' Then he said, 'OK, you have to go with us."

Ajaz was at fault. He'd come to New York on a six-month visitor's visa, then, he admits, he made a false application for political asylum. And in 1995, when an immigration judge confronted him in court, he followed his lawyer's advice, and signed papers saying he would leave the country voluntarily within a year, but he did not keep his word.

"The lawyer say, you can stay here, nobody going to throw you out," he recalled. "And after that nobody asked me anything. I was scared a little bit, but after 2 years, 3 years, I say, Oh, lawyer was ok, lawyer was saying the truth, nobody going to touch you. But after September 11, they touch everybody."

The Justice Department began seeking out men who'd been ordered deported, but who had not returned to a list of countries the U.S. government says harbor terrorists. To Ajaz, none of that made much sense.

"If I have a deportation order in '95, why are they catching me in 2003, why? Because I'm Muslim and Pakistani? Unbelievable. That kind of stuff I don't understand," he said.

Ajaz spent two-and-a-half months in jail. Then he was put on a plane, handcuffed, and flown half-way around the world - one of more than a thousand Pakistanis deported since the September 11th attacks. His wife is still in New York, with their newborn child.

They arrive at Islamabad Airport disheveled, and angry that they've been treated like criminals while most have simply overstayed visas or failed to show for a court date.

"What I do? I don't do nothing! I have children! What do I do?" said one of the deportees. Another one said, "My property is all lost, my passport's lost, everything lost. FBI told me, give me people, Pakistani people, Muslim people. I no like America! I like Pakistan! Pakistan! I love Pakistan."

Pakistani Embassy officials give Ajaz and the others enough money to make their way home from the airport.

Ajaz arrives at his home in Lahore wearing the fast-food manager's uniform he was arrested in.

He rings repeatedly, as he always used to, and in the twilight, he's greeted by nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters and his mother, in flowing white scarf and tunic. She takes him into her arms.

Ajaz spends much of his first full day back telling his story to a stream of relatives and friends who come sit in the family room and stare in disbelief.

"They should have allowed him to stay there! Those who are there with no family, they could have been treated like that. But not a man with a family," said a sister-in-law.

AUDIO: CUT 15 NAQUI "I don't know why he came back, wonders Said Naqui, who lives next door to Ajaz. His own brother immigrated to the United States too, and Said always planned to follow, until now.

"My elder brother suggest me that, please don't come here. If you want to make your future bright, stay in Pakistan," noted Said.

That is the message traveling fast from the United States to the Pakistani streets.

Ajaz has been with his family just a few days, and sitting on the roof of his family's house a roof built with money he sent from the United States he seems momentarily convinced he could stay here and make this his home. But every time he ventures beyond this house, onto the messy streets of Lahore, he becomes agitated. The roads have no lanes. Tiny cars and smoke-spewing rickshaws and bicycles and pedestrians compete for the tiniest openings. While Ajaz and Pakistan have far bigger problems than traffic, this is the thing he can't get out of his head.

"I was in States and they teach me everything," he recalled. "Don't cross the light, stop sign. I love that! In my country, everybody driving without license!"

He says he misses the rule of law in the United States, even though he broke the law so he could live there.

Late in the evening, Ajaz argues on the phone to his wife in New York. He explains: "She's a little upset because she say, why you so hating this country?"

She wants him to love Pakistan and she wants to bring the baby to join him here. But Ajaz is thinking of the way he was able to live in America, and all the things he provided for his family, and how little money he can make in Pakistan.

"I'm nothing, I'm a jobless," he said. "We have a big house, electricity and gas and a lot of things. They're happy now because I came here after 10 years. But might be after one months, they're going to say, Hello! Go outside and look job or something. Before they tell me something, I have to do something to go back! That's it!"

Ajaz is barred from returning to the United States for 10 years. He thinks he can buy a visa to go to Montreal, but he doesn't even have his Pakistani papers right now. He says immigration officials told him they lost his passport.

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