NEW YORK -- The deportation letter arrived just as Nadia Habib was starting her junior year at Stony Brook University, its message straightforward and scary: Please report to our offices on Sept. 29, and be prepared to leave the country.
Habib, who moved to the U.S. from Bangladesh when she was a toddler, had known that she was an illegal immigrant since she was a teenager, her attorney says. But the knowledge that she would have to leave the country where she grew up – the place she calls home – was a horrible shock.
"It's a crazy situation to be in for someone like her," said her attorney, Aygul Charles. "To just kind of go through the motions and do the things that a normal college student would do, then have this letter sent to you that says `pack your bags.'"
Habib and her mother, Nazmin Habib, were granted a temporary reprieve Thursday as immigration officials postponed a final decision on their case, allowing them to stay in the U.S. for now. The two women arrived at a federal courthouse in lower Manhattan for their deportation meeting prepared to say goodbye to their family and board a plane. But instead, they emerged from the courthouse smiling as about 100 supporters cheered and chanted "education not deportation!"
"We still have a lot of waiting and hoping to do," Nadia Habib told supporters. "I'm just nervous. Tomorrow's my birthday, so this is kind of a great birthday present."
Immigration officials fingerprinted them, confiscated the Habibs' passports and put them under an order of supervision, which requires them to meet periodically with an immigration officer while their case is being reviewed. They weren't told when a decision would be made, though immigration officers said it was a high-priority case, Charles said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has been working with immigration officials on behalf of the family, released a statement praising the decision not to deport them.
"I am thrilled that Nadia will be celebrating her 20th birthday tomorrow at home with her family and will be continuing her studies in the only country she's ever known," Gillibrand said.
The Habib family has taken a confusing legal path toward citizenship ever since they arrived in the U.S. in 1993 from Bangladesh with baby Nadia. Some details of the legal proceedings remain murky, as they have switched lawyers several times over the years. Charles was brought onto the case only a week ago, when Nadia Habib filled out an online form seeking help from the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an advocacy group that quickly took up her cause.
The problem began when Nazmin Habib became ill and missed a scheduled hearing in U.S. Immigration Court on April 26, 2000, according to a court document. The judge proceeded to conduct a hearing in absentia and denied her request for asylum based on past persecution in Bangladesh, Charles said.
When the Habibs tried to reopen the case by providing a doctor's note, the judge said the note was not credible because the doctor was not found in the court's registered list of physicians. Charles said this was a clerical error that was never corrected.
Nadia Habib's siblings were born in the U.S. and are thus citizens, while her father successfully applied for his green card based on his relationship with his children, Charles said.
"His attorney at the time told him that he shouldn't include his wife or Nadia in the application," Charles said. "I've been told by other attorneys that that's nonsense."
Many immigrant children like Nadia Habib don't learn that they are illegal until their teens, when they're applying for a driver's license or to college, Charles said.
The most famous example in recent memory was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who discovered he was an illegal immigrant in high school after emigrating from the Philippines in 1993. Vargas lied about his immigration status to employers for years until he wrote about his struggles in a magazine story earlier this year. He lost his driver's license after the story was published, but has not been deported.
"This goes on throughout the country," Charles said. "There's so many kids in Nadia's shoes."
The family was not available for interviews on Thursday, and Charles was unable to provide the names of their prior attorneys. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Luis Martinez said the agency can't discuss the case without a privacy waiver.
Sara Martinez, 22, was among those who came out to support the family.
"The immigration system is broken and flawed," said Martinez, whose own family immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was a baby.
Habib, who previously attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, told reporters that she would be returning to class Monday at the state university on Long Island.
"Obviously, it's a roller coaster. I'm just really grateful to be able to stay here longer," she said. "I'm just gonna continue doing what I've been doing, living my life as I have. And wait for an answer."