Fatima Raziuddin had been living in the United States for 18 years when, on February 6, 2006, she was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
On the day of her arrest, her son Abbas—who was 14 at the time—took the day off school to drive with his father to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field office in Columbus, Ohio, where they tried to sort out the situation.
Abbas, his older brother Shabbir, and their father, Razi, were all American citizens. The family thought Fatima was on a path to citizenship, too. But when they arrived at the immigration office, they found out otherwise.
"My dad and I were in the waiting room," Abbas, who is now 24, told me. "The next thing we knew, my mom was behind a glass window—the kind with a telephone on each side, like in a prison. We were saying our goodbyes, but we couldn't even give her a hug. We were dumbfounded at what had happened."
The family learned that Fatima had been arrested for violating her nonimmigrant student status back in 1988. Fatima had come to the United States from Pakistan that January, on a student visa, to earn a master's degree. Soon after, she met and married Razi, who was a green-card holder at the time.
Fatima didn't go back to school the next semester. She later briefly worked illegally at the restaurant that employed her husband. After being caught for these violations, Fatima was sentenced to voluntary departure to Pakistan by an immigration judge on December 7, 1989. But Fatima didn't return.
"First came cancer, then children," Razi told me. Doctors found thyroid cancer; after treatment, she became pregnant with her first child, Shabbir, in 1989. Abbas came in 1991. By 1994, Razi applied for her to be a lawful permanent resident—at this point, he'd become a naturalized citizen and could file for his wife to get a green card through permanent residence.
Fatima was approved for a green card in May 1994—although her status was rescinded that September, due to the fact that she never voluntarily left the country back in 1989. Because of this, she would be eventually deported back to Karachi, Pakistan, on March 6, 2006, one month after her arrest.
Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for ICE, told me that if a person is not immediately removed, the circumstances of his or her deportation would vary depending on the particular case. "It's not uncommon to have some time between when a person is ordered to be removed and when the removal is affected," he said.
For Fatima, it was 16 years, and her family believes post-9/11 laws made it more difficult for her—and others who have immigrated from Muslim countries—to stay.
According to Face the Facts USA, a fact-checking project at George Washington University, immigrant removals went from roughly 200,000 people in 2001 to almost double that in 2011. More parents of legal American children were deported that year than the past ten years added together.
There was a push in 2003 to track down "fugitive" immigrants—those who missed immigration hearings or ignored deportation orders—and deport or detain them, according to a report by Southern California Public Radio. While the majority of these immigrants were Hispanic, this coincided with a time of increased anti-Muslim discrimination, including hate crimes and FBI surveillance.
The Raziuddins' immigration lawyer would not comment on her case, but Neil Fleischer, an immigration attorney and partner at Fleischer Law Firm LLC, told me the increase in deportations was "partially because of an executive mandate from each president, whether it was Bush or Obama, [which provided] more resources to find and ultimately deport people, which they were not doing prior to 9/11."
In 2015, Senator Lindsey Graham incorrectly claimed "all the hijackers who attacked us on 9/11 were visa overstays." Fleischer says this belief resulted in a huge crackdown on students who had fallen out of status for reasons like not being able to pay their student bills.
"There's some sort of ticker system that they won't acknowledge to me that when a Muslim student falls out of status, [ICE] are much more likely to pick him or her up," Fleischer told me.
When asked about any discrimination through ICE, Walls said "race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation are not factors in determining removability."
But Allison E. Herre, an immigration attorney and legal immigration services director for Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio, says she's seen anti-Muslim sentiments affect one of her cases.
"The client, who was from a predominately Muslim country, entered the US on a student visa but fell out of status when he failed to attend his classes," Herre told me. "Individuals in the US on [this] visa must leave the US within 60 days of the termination of the student status. This client failed to depart, which typically does not trigger an immediate response from Department of Homeland Security. However, not long after the conclusion of the 60 day grace period, this client was apprehended in his home by ICE and detained until he accepted a departure order from the judge."
It's now been ten and a half years since Fatima was forced to leave the US. While she's seen her loved ones' faces on Skype, she's missed her sons growing up, including Abbas's recent college graduation.
To come back to the states, Fatima needs to be granted permission for reentry, through the I-601 form, or the Application for Waiver on Grounds of Inadmissibility.
"You have to show extreme hardship to a US citizen relative, such as the US citizen having a severe medical disability—physical or mental—or severe economic factors like losing a home or losing an income," said Fleischer.
But the threshold for "extreme hardship" is very high. "It's something more than just missing your family member or losing part of the income. Generally, there has to be a medical component to it," he continued. "You want someone who's dying of cancer or has a horrible mental disability. The worse the situation, the easier it is for a waiver. So in real life, we don't want that, but in the immigration world, we do."
Abbas told me he and his family applied for the I-601 in 2011, the five-year mark of Fatima being gone, while working with a lawyer.
"We were told the consulates didn't believe us that there was extreme hardship even though our house was on foreclosure, my dad had lost his job during the recession, and I wasn't old enough to have a job," says Abbas.
Their new lawyer is working on understanding the narrative of Fatima's case and examining the lack of correspondence between USCIS and Karachi consulate. The Raziuddins hope to apply for the waiver again before 2017.
Abbas says that the family has a special kind of bond that only comes about from suffering so deeply together. While a lot has been lost, they will be ready to move on as a family if Fatima can one day return.
"We can't make up for the past, but once she comes back, there's so much room for her to grow with us," Abbas told me. "I think we'll heal pretty fast."
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