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Pakistani Families Flee U.S. To Seek Canada Asylum

by Ahmar Mustikhan and Jeff Elliott

on "special registration"
INS special registration
Government notices in Arabic contained errors that lead some aliens to believe they were not required to appear at INS offices for "special registration"
With a February 21 deadline for "special registration" with the U.S. authorities fast approaching, hundreds of Pakistani families wait nervously at the Canadian border, hoping for the chance to apply for asylum.

Probably for all of them, it is the worst nightmare of their lives -- an unthinkable "can't happen here" scenario for people who have called America home for years. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is now requiring males over 16 from 25 countries -- all Muslim nations, plus North Korea -- to be fingerprinted, photographed, and show proof of their identity.

Fears are rife in the ethnic communities that they will be jailed when they show up for processing. These worries are not unfounded; in mid-December, authorities in Los Angeles arrested 400-500 Iranians who complied with the law (see MONITOR story). The number of arrests have since declined, but the incident horrified those who must register. The trek to Canada began days after the incident.

Worse than detention, most fear being returned to their home countries. "I had to leave Pakistan as in that conservative society my wife was looked down upon as prostitute because of her profession," says B. Khan, who lives in Rhode Island with his family. His wife, Uzma, worked for an airline; in Pakistan, it is considered taboo for women to come into contact with unrelated males or work outside the home overnight.

The couple has three girls -- two born in the U.S. -- and has been seeking asylum here. Should they now flee America, they wonder? "We had never thought such a thing would happen," says Uzma. "We came here after burning all our boats.

"I am telling my hubby not to take any chances, but just drive to the Canadian border. He is not agreeing," she says. Still undecided, as the clock ticks away, her husband still pins his hopes on U.S. justice and gaining asylum here.

Many rights organizations in America are trying to help those in distress, battling in favor of what seems a lost cause. "We have been getting ten or more calls per day from worried people. Most of them have been Indonesians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. But others like Jordanians, Egyptians and Morrocans have also been calling," says Krittika Ghosh of the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF).

Ghosh says right now it was majority of Pakistanis who were trying to flee into Canadian safety as their deadline is near. "After that it may be Bangladeshis who would be trying to do the same," she adds. Citizens of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, and Kuwait must register by March 28.

"Many of them have spent countless sleepless nights not knowing what to do. They are completely distraught, emotionally and mentally." AALDEF has been holding free legal clinics in communities dominated by the affected Asian nations and Ghosh was surprised at the high turnouts: "As many as 100 people show up for a single session."

Shelters filled near the border as Pakistanis flee U.S.
A sort of underground railroad has emerged, with Pakistanis fleeing New York City and other urban centers for border towns like Buffalo, where humanitarian groups like Vive Inc. provide food, medical aid, advice, and legal help in seeking Canadian asylum. What they no longer provide is shelter; Vive, like similar groups, has been overwhelmed by the sheer number of people seeking to flee the United States. Churches, Salvation Army shelters, and other traditional humanitarian groups in the areas all have reported a heavy demand for aid.


The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) is among the groups documenting abuses of the special registration process, and has found many cases where foreign nationals were apparently arrested without cause when they appeared at an INS office to register. Because the law only considers where the man was born, even naturalized citizens of countries like Canada, France, and Norway are required to register. Many of these men also entered the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from friendly nations to visit the U.S. without a regular visa for three months. They can, however, be deported immediately without an appeal. Some examples from the AILA web site:

  • Just a month before a Danish citizen was to complete his paperwork for permanent residence, he registered and was detained and denied bond. The man is awaiting deportation without a hearing. Although he is a naturalized citizen of Denmark, he was born in Iran, and thus required to participate in the special registration.

  • A French citizen (but Lebanese national) was waiting for the INS to grant permanent residence status because of his marriage to an American woman. He was arrested and held without bond when he registered, on the grounds that "he has no relief."

  • Working legally in Northern California with a visa, a Canadian man had been told that citizens of his country didn't have to register. Still, he wanted to be sure so he contacted the INS. He was arrested and sent to a detention camp in San Diego. The man, who stepped into the local INS office a day past the deadline for Iranian-born men, had left Iran with his family when he was one year old.

Tiny Plattsburgh NY is another crossing point that has seen a sharp upswing recently. But where a month ago hopeful freedom- seekers could just walk across the snowy bridge to file their paperwork at the Canadian immigration center, they are now turned away at the border and told to make an appointment to come back later. Meanwhile, the clock ticks down.

Canadians say that the number of applicants have overwhelmed the small staffs at the borders, and they have no choice but to turn people back to the U.S. -- and into the waiting arms of INS officials, curious why they have tried to escape. "When returning back to U.S., they are being nabbed. The INS seems to have beefed up it presence at the border outposts for this specific purpose," reports Faisal Alam, founder of Al Fatiha, a Muslim gay rights organization.

AALDEF spokesperson Ghosh points out at the no-win situation of these aliens as they stare into an uncertain future. She confirmed that overzealous INS officials were rounding up those who return from the Canadian side of the border. "I can not say what is making them pursue even the fleeing aliens. It may be an anti-immigrant mentality."

It may also be a catch-22 that few attempting to leave the U.S. apparently know: Even if they intend to seek asylum in Canada, they are still required to register and be interviewed by the INS before crossing the border. Failure to do so can result in a $5,000 fine and detention.

And that's not the only trap waiting: According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), special registration also requires all registrants to now report to Departure Control each time they leave the U.S. Few registrants are given clear information about this rule, but the legal group says that if they fail to follow it correctly, they will be forever barred from returning to the U.S.

The Canadian asylum process takes about a year and about half of the immigrants that cross its border flunk, and are then returned to the U.S.

Some of those waiting near the border are "out of status" -- among the seven million aliens from all over the world that are currently living in the United States with expired (or no) visas. But it is not only these illegals who are facing the short end of the federal stick. Even those who have carefully followed the rules are not spared; AILA has documented several cases of people facing deportation without a hearing because they simply entered the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program (see sidebar).

Nor is a coveted U.S. green card a guarantee of freedom from harassment. Ghulam Murtaza, 42, who lives with his American wife in Wisconsin, missed a flight last month because he was suspected of being a terrorist.

"My flight was due at 11:55AM but I reached the counter well ahead of time at 10," Murtaza says from his home. The next thing he noticed was two uniformed police officers of Milwaukee Police. "The deputy sheriff told me 'Sir, you know you are on the FBI watchlist."

Murtaza was taken to a police station and as time passed and his flight left, he could hear the officers calling the FBI -- which apparently didn't answer the phone on a Saturday morning. Murtaza says then one of the cop came and asked whether he had a Turkish passport, explaining "Actually, we are looking for somebody with the same last name."

Murtaza, who has a background in journalism and will graduate as a radio broadcaster this summer, considers his detainment may be a result of ignorance and racism, but takes the historical view. "All this is nothing to what the Germans and Japanese faced. They remained interned even two years after the Great War."

Ahmar Mustikhan's last article, Letters From America, appeared in May 2001

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Albion Monitor February 12, 2003 (

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