Human Rights

Returned to the Rubble

Pakistanis facing deportation to their earthquake-ravaged country are hoping for a temporary reprieve.
Following the devastating earthquake that shook Pakistan, Kashmir and India in early October, legislators and community groups are hoping to get temporary asylum for Pakistanis in the U.S.

Rep. Al Green (D-TX) sponsored the Pakistani Temporary Protected Status Act of 2005, along with seven co-sponsors including Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), that was introduced to the House on Oct. 18. The bill would put pressure on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who ultimately controls whether asylum is granted.

This status was established as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 and has been used for the protection of potential deportees from countries affected by war, environmental disasters or other extraordinary circumstances. Countries currently protected by the status include Burundi, El Salvador, Honduras, Liberia, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan. Asylum would not only prevent deportation for up to a year and a half, but also allow undocumented immigrants not being charged with a crime to be released and work during the postponement period.

"This is a more than appropriate response to the enormity of the disaster," Jackson-Lee said. "The Temporary Protected Status Act represents an aspect of a comprehensive response necessary to protect children and increase the dollar amount in aid. More government action is needed."

South Asian Network (SAN), a grassroots community organization based in Southern California, is also calling for an immediate moratorium on all deportations, citing the undue trauma detainees would face if forced to return to Pakistan now. The moratorium would block any further deportations until asylum is granted and prevent the deportation of those not covered by protected status.

"It would be a very traumatic experience to go back because when you add that you are being dislocated as a result of state oppression, being picked up and shipped off to where the whole country is traumatized, that could be very detrimental," said SAN's Executive Director Hamid Khan.

Immigration authorities have refused to release names of Pakistani detainees, though SAN has requested the names of those being held in the Mira Loma, San Pedro and Lancaster facilities in California. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) responded by approving meetings between SAN representatives and detainees.

"Our first priority is to offer comfort," said Khan, adding that SAN will attempt to locate the whereabouts of family members in Pakistan and offer resources for the protection of the rights and due process of detainees.

The call for government action is part of the larger ongoing struggle between immigrant rights groups and the enforcement agencies. Collaboration between government agencies like ICE, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement agencies has led to the increased harassment, detainment and deportation of targeted immigrant populations, Khan said.

Granting protection for immigrants from Pakistan, or Guatemala and El Salvador, which also faced massive damage from hurricane-related flooding, mudslides and earthquake in October, will not be easy to win, said Jackson-Lee.

"It's not easy because it reflects the current state of immigration in this country, which is in complete disarray," she said. "It's absolutely imperative to have real comprehensive immigration reform to shift the focus off deportation and elimination of immigration. Citizens want a fair system." Jackson-Lee's immigration bill, the Save America Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, is the most progressive of several reform bills before Congress this fall. It provides for family reunification, college access for immigrant children and a path to legalization for undocumented workers without requiring them to be "guest workers."

Jackson-Lee is also authoring a new bill, the South Asian Earthquake Relief Act, to provide family reunification for Pakistani immigrants with family members affected by the quake.

Close to 600 Pakistani immigrants, 140 of whom were deemed "criminal aliens," have been deported in the past two years alone, according to ICE's website. Earlier this year, 63 "criminal alien" Pakistanis were exiled to Islamabad, and Khan reports that close to 200 Pakistani detainees were deported just a month ago. Currently, Umir Hayat and his son Hamid, two Pakistani men with U.S. citizenship, are facing trial for lying to the FBI about knowledge of and participation in 2003 'terrorist training camps' in Pakistan. Both Hayat men are the only U.S. citizens being charged from an investigation of a mosque in Lodi, California. They decided to stand trial rather than submit to deportation. Three other men in the case-Muhammed Adil Khan and his son, Mohammad Hassan Adil and Shabbir Ahmed-were deported and returned to Pakistan only a week before the quake. Their whereabouts are unknown.

While Umer and Hamid Hayat would not be released with work authorization, temporary protected status or a moratorium on deportation would prevent their immediate deportation if convicted on the charges of lying to the FBI. Currently 90 Pakistanis are awaiting deportation, said Sohail Khan of the Consulate General of Pakistan in New York. All these detainees would benefit from the possible success of efforts to put pressure on Chertoff to grant asylum.
Megan Izen is a writing fellow with ColorLines magazine.
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