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Natalie Somani is packing up her Sacramento apartment as her husband Arif, an Indian Muslim, languishes in Sacramento County Jail. With all the phone and legal bills, she can't afford the rent. Born and raised in the United States, Natalie, 36, never thought she would spend hours plowing through reams of INS forms and regulations. That was before she married an illegal alien.
Though the Department of Homeland Security just suspended the controversial "special registration" program for men from 25 countries, those already in deportation proceedings see no relief. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, some 13,000 are awaiting deportation mostly for visa violations. For their wives and children, many of them American citizens like Natalie, the choices are grim.
Arif Somani, 29, came to the United States from Bombay after his father lost the soap factory they owned. On a cold December night in 1998, after crossing over illegally from Canada by boat, Arif stopped to buy a cup of coffee for the man who ferried them across the border. He was immediately picked up by the border patrol, who fingerprinted him but later dropped him off at the bus stop. "He hadn't been in the country 20 minutes before he was caught," Natalie says.
He ended up across the country in El Dorado, Calif., working in a grocery store. Natalie met him there while delivering tobacco products. She knew from their first date that he had entered the country illegally. "But what is love worth?" said Natalie, when her mother worried about her getting involved with an illegal alien.
Natalie had thought it was a matter of filling out the right paperwork to normalize Arif's status. What neither of them knew was that buried in his immigration file was a deportation order pending from a court appearance he had missed. When Arif went to the INS office for what he thought would be a routine visit to get a work permit, he never came back. "My husband is in custody because he's Muslim -- that's my gut feeling," Natalie says.
Not so, says Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The federal agency cannot comment on specific cases, but, an ICE official says, "We don't hold people because of religion. People are held because they are under orders of deportation."
Natalie says her life with Arif has given her an "eye-opening" experience about two entities she never really thought much about -- illegal aliens and her own government. "I thought they were just foreigners working under the table. Now I see how hard they work. Since he has been here, Arif has helped his family in India buy a flat, and he paid for his brother to go to an air-conditioning repair school," Natalie says. As for her government, after running pillar to post trying to get answers Natalie feels frustrated. "I took all the information I had to an immigration officer and he just said, 'Obviously you know more about the law than I do,' and walked away."
Thousands of illegal aliens are in situations similar to Arif Somani's. Even if they have been here for years and paid their taxes like Arif did, it doesn't change the fact that they are here illegally. "Everyone wants to be legal," says ICE. "But you need to leave the country and file a petition so you can re-enter the right way."
Caught in between the two is Natalie. Her husband's family in India, whom she has never met, is wondering why he is not sending them money anymore. "I don't speak Hindi," says Natalie. "But even if I did, he doesn't want them to worry."
Arif, who has no criminal record and according to Natalie won't even squash a spider, is housed in a six-by-nine cell with criminals because INS detention centers are overflowing. Recently a lifer picked a fight with Arif and punched him three times, breaking his nose. When Natalie saw him he had a black eye that was swollen shut, a gash in his tongue and trouble breathing.
He might be safer if he was transferred to the INS detention center in Florence, Ariz. But, Natalie says, "At least now I see him twice a week through a glass pane on a recorded phone. I can't just pack up my business and move to the middle of nowhere in Arizona."
One way out of this limbo might be if Arif is deported back to India. Then Natalie can try to negate the deportation order, citing hardship, and petition the government to allow him to re-enter the United States -- a long and uncertain process. Natalie hopes that won't happen and he will get out, get a green card and they can visit his mother. That's Plan A. "But I have a Plan B," Natalie says. "If he does get deported, I will return to India with him and let my sister run my business."
Sandip Roy is a Pacific News Service editor.