I spent this summer working with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to organize Muslim immigrants in the Chicagoland area. I came across scores of immigration horror stories, but the one that touched me the most was that of a woman named Aleena and her husband Asim.
Aleena is an American citizen. She has lived in the United States since she was three and recently married Asim, an international student from Pakistan. He is living here legally on a student visa that permits him to hold a job. When the government announced that nonresident immigrant males from all predominantly Muslim countries and North Korea had to come in for special registration with their local immigration offices, Asim did not flinch. The immigration lawyers at his school assured him that he had nothing to worry about because all his papers were in order. But then Asim did not come home from registration.
He was arrested because the people working at the immigration office did not understand the terms of his visa. They told him that under his visa, he was required to work. In reality, his visa simply gave him permission to work while he attended school. Aleena’s family had to come up with $7,500 to bail out Asim, and when her father went to bail out his son-in-law, he was told that Asim had been relocated. Meanwhile, Asim was calling Aleena’s mother assuring her that he had not been moved since he was arrested the previous day. The woman at the desk had been lying to Aleena’s father, and eventually the officers brought Asim out right in front of her and let him go.
Asim did not speak for the next several days. He was traumatized. When he finally started talking, he told Aleena that he had been handcuffed and shackled, treated like a criminal, and insulted by the guards. They questioned the validity of his marriage with Aleena, and they locked him up with dangerous criminals and treated him as if he himself had committed some serious offense.
I still remember the first time I heard Aleena share her story. “Why did this happen to us?” she asked, choking back tears. “I thought we lived in a country whose ideals included democracy and fairness.” This is a story of a couple that followed the law to the letter and still got trampled.
Two years after Sept. 11, more than 13,000 Muslim men are slated for deportation. They followed the law and went in for registration when they were asked to, purportedly as a counterterrorism measure, but they were arrested because there were problems with their papers. In many cases, the problem was simply that immigration agencies had fallen behind in processing their documents. Ironically, not a single one of the men detained by the government has been charged with any connections to terrorism. Perhaps this is because it wouldn’t make sense for a terrorist to go in voluntarily and register in the first place.
Unfortunately, special registration is just one example of the many shortcomings of current immigration law. By refusing to acknowledge undocumented immigrants’ right to unionize, the law also opens the door for exploitation. Employers pay undocumented workers below minimum wage and force them to work under dangerous conditions. They are subject to discrimination and sexual harassment. If they complain, employers threaten to report them to immigration officials.
Furthermore, even though the overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants pay taxes, they do not enjoy social services and will never be eligible for the Social Security benefits that are deducted every week from their checks. Even though they take essential jobs that most American citizens wouldn’t dare to go near because of the working conditions and low pay, they always live under the constant fear of expulsion. Worst of all, no matter how long they have lived in the United States or how hard they have worked, under existing immigration law, they will never be eligible for legal status.
Like special registration, these are all shortcomings inherent in the law. That is why a nationwide coalition is converging on Flushing Meadows in Queens this coming Saturday to stand up for immigrant rights. As part of the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride — inspired by the Freedom Rides of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement — buses filled with Freedom Riders from all over the country are coming to New York this Saturday to demand a “road to citizenship” for all immigrants, family reunification, rights for immigrants in the workplace, and civil rights and liberties for all.
I am going to be there with them this Saturday because I cannot possibly be anywhere else. As a son of immigrant parents, I know firsthand of the difficulties immigrants in America face — from social stigma to systemic discrimination. As a Muslim, I feel Aleena’s and Asim’s pain and know that next time it could be someone I care for very deeply — perhaps even one of the international students here at Yale who went to Hartford just last week for registration. But most of all, as an American, I know that I value freedom and equality far too highly to sit idly by while my government makes a mockery of them in my name.
Saqib Bhatti is a senior in Saybrook College.