February Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

“In the wake of the new US immigration laws covering Muslim countries, many Pakistanis have turned Judas — reporting their fellow nationals to the US authorities.

In candid interviews with journalists, many Pakistanis arrested for violating the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) laws, have spoken of a series of betrayals at the hands of their own. In the greater Washington area, for example, two Pakistani food chains reported at least 80 Pakistani nationals to US authorities in a bid to settle old scores. In other cases, even disgruntled in-laws of estranged spouses have implicated them in immigration cases , often over minor domestic disputes. The recent past has also seen cases of family members ratting on each other.

“At least 25 per cent of the detainees have been betrayed by someone they trusted,” says a Pakistani social worker who provides legal advice to those in trouble. “Sometimes local Americans have proved more helpful than fellow Pakistanis and Muslims,” she maintains, as she displays a series of pamphlets printed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Hindi and Bengali. The pamphlets provide advice to Muslim immigrants living in the United States on whom to approach when confronted by INS officers. It also informs them of their legal rights and how to defend themselves.

At least 18 Pakistanis have contacted the embassy in Washington, asking its staff to report a particular person to the police or immigration officers because of petty grudges such as their refusal to lend cars to them or for failing to return borrowed money.

Imran Ali, a Pakistani diplomat who provides consular assistance to immigrants in trouble, complains that lawyers are also exploiting the situation to make money. “They often give their clients wrong advice, asking them to apply for political asylum or change their address or simply run away from the police,” he says. “This is despite the fact that they are all well aware that once an order is issued, it’s almost impossible for an immigrant to avoid deportation. Many such lawyers are from the subcontinent, but local American lawyers have also been known to take advantage of the situation.”

INS officials say that a large number of Pakistani immigrants came to the United States during the Clinton era when immigration controls were not very strict and visa restrictions relaxed. Most of the Pakistanis who emigrated during 1992-2000 were from the rural belt in Punjab, especially from Wazirabad, Sialkot and Gujarat, rather than from major cities.

“A gang of expert forgers was operating in those areas in the 1990s,” says a Pakistani social worker. “They were so good that even the INS recognised them as expert forgers.”

Once they had slipped through a US entry port, most Pakistanis, like immigrants from other countries, chose to stay, even after their visas had expired. “But unlike other immigrants they were not good at legalising their stay,” says a Pakistani lawyer. “Instead of trying to blend into the mainstream, they were content to work as illegal workers in jewellery shops, South Asian grocery and liquor stores and gas stations, and to receive less than minimum wages,” says another lawyer.

“Even if they wanted to legalise their stay, most of them were advised by South Asian lawyers. They would advise their clients on how to dodge the system rather than help find a way out within the system,” says Ali. The most common advice that they received was: apply for political asylum. “Overnight Punjabis and Pathans became MQM workers, mohajirs became Baloch nationalists. Sunnis became Shias and Ahmadis. And those who had never participated in politics claimed they were political stalwarts,” says the lawyer. Since most of them had no background in politics — religious or secular — their cases were rejected by the immigration authorities. The same lawyers then advised them to marry American women. What they never told the immigrants was that once a deportation order is issued, even a marriage will not legalise their stay in the United States. They had to return home and apply for immigration at a US mission abroad.

When the campaign against illegal immigrants began post 9/11, many immigrants married to American citizens, who had been living in the US for years, were also arrested. “This led to many tragedies. Families were separated. Husbands and fathers were deported, while wives and children were left behind,” says Ali.

And it’s not all just emotions that have been relegated to “collateral damage.” Many small businesses have also gone bust because of the deportations of their staff members, with those left behind too young and inexperienced to replace them.