Farhan Ezad was living what most would consider a fairly typical American life in June 2010. At 35 years old, he had three sons and a decade-long marriage to a loving wife. But the economic downturn had taken its toll in Canadensis, Pennsylvania, and he had just lost his job. He was planning on continuing his employment search on Thursday, July 1, when he heard a knock at his front door at 5 am.
Within the hour Ezad was whisked away by Homeland Security to Pike County Prison. In 1995, while a sophomore at Rutgers University, he sold three tabs of LSD to an undercover police officer. Ezad himself was not a dealer; he just happened to know where some could be scored on Livingston Campus. He was arrested a year later and convicted in June 1997. He ended up serving five years probation and paid a stiff fine, and was done with it. Or so he believed. Fifteen years later a $15 drug deal reared its ugly head.
For most Americans, such a sophomoric folly would be brushed aside and fast forgotten. Our last three presidents have admitted in one way or another to smoking marijuana. Charlie Sheen reportedly spent a half-million dollars on prostitutes and drugs in six months, the result being a number of blogs and websites celebrating his "wild" side. The problem with Ezad's case, however, is that he is not an American. His family moved here from Pakistan in 1980. Neglecting to apply for citizenship when he turned 18 might prove to be his greatest crime. Once convicted of a felony, that opportunity was gone forever.
After Ezad was held for a week at Pike County, his wife, Angel, cleared out the family savings account to post the $10,000 bail. The initial hearing in August 2010 was postponed after his lawyer requested time to gather evidence. The judge granted a delay, setting a new hearing for March 28, 2011. Unable to work in the region, Ezad moved his family into his brother-in-law's basement in Harvey's Lake, Pennsylvania.
"It makes you feel pretty little," Ezad said, after returning from his temporary job in a warehouse that produces aluminum products. "My lawyer isn't too hopeful. She wants to be, and she's trying, but she also knows the reality of how Homeland Security has been working over the past few years."
Indeed, Homeland Security's efforts have received heavy criticism. In an aggressive attempt to prove to American citizens that it was cracking down, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) deported 392,862 people in 2010, breaking its previous record of 389,834 in 2009. Some experts say that the 2010 numbers are inflated, but no one is denying that ICE cranked its investigations up a notch.
Shelley Grant, Ezad's lawyer and an associate at the Philadelphia-based Bagia and Associates Immigration Law, has noticed that since 9/11 such policies have become much stricter. ICE, she said, "has this cooperation with local police communities called 'secure communities.' An officer will stop a car if they're speeding, check the identification of all of the passengers, and if they don't have ID, the officer will call Immigration to confirm that that person has legal status in the US. They're basically quasi-immigration officers."
In a recently released study conducted by Migration Policy Institute, researchers found that the majority of immigrants being taken into custody are not what ICE officials consider "Level 1" or "Level 2" offenders. Sameer Ahmed, a staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, views this as a major failing of the organization. "Although ICE agents are advised to exercise their prosecutorial discretion and only target non-citizens who pose a real and serious danger to the American public, unfortunately, people like Farhan are increasingly being deported," he says.
Ezad falls into what ICE has dubbed "Removal Management." Most of the verbiage on the agency's website attempts to prove how hard it is working to rid the country of illegal immigrants. In 2010, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano referred to ICE as having a "record-breaking year." Seeing the torment one such incident can put a family through, one can imagine the compounded misery of nearly 400,000 such cases in just 365 days. Grant figures a system that removes more than 1,000 people a day is not calibrated to consider the emotional impact.
"The unfortunate part for Farhan is, had he be convicted of just possession of LSD, and not trafficking, I likely could have filed a 'cancellation and removal' application for him, and he likely would have won," she said. "He never had any other problems, he has a wife and three kids, with one on the way. The sheer fact that he plead guilty to a charge that indicates he was trafficking is killing him."
The episode has devastated his wife and three sons, ages five, eight and nine, who do not understand what is going on. Ezad's case was most likely brought to light after he reapplied (and received) his green card in 2008, which was right when Homeland Security began ramping up its efforts. ICE has another insidious tactic, Grant says. When foreigners with prior convictions travel to visit family abroad, the agency arranges to have them detained at the airport. "People don't realize that a conviction from 30 years ago will haunt them now."
Although Grant does not hold out much hope for Ezad's case, Ezad himself has not given up. He is currently petitioning New Jersey governor Chris Christie's office for a pardon. While it might be a long shot, this appears to be the only way he can remain in America. "A pardon is the same thing as never having been convicted," Grant says. "If he hasn't been convicted, he keeps his green card."
Sameer Ahmed sees another, albeit equally challenging, way. Because Ezad was convicted of what is considered an "aggravated felony," which Ahmed says "can include even minor crimes," the chances of the court not deporting him are slim. However, he goes on, "If it wanted, given Farhan's very sympathetic situation, ICE could unilaterally terminate the removal proceedings and allow Farhan to remain in the United States."
While I was on the phone with Ezad, he lamented prior choices: hooking up a stranger with three tabs of acid, not applying for citizenship. I was at Rutgers during the same four years as Ezad, and while we were not close friends, we ran in the same circles and shared a similar love of music and art. He was soft-spoken, intelligent and always ready to offer a smile. I stepped out of journalist mode to offer comfort as I considered the process that is about to send him back to a country he knows nothing about. He does not speak the language. He has no friends or family in Pakistan. A rock music fan and guitarist, he has tattoos, which he believes might get him in trouble with fundamentalists.
Ezad's feelings and the grief of his family won't matter when he steps into court. He does not represent the terrorists that perpetually frighten the American imagination or the supposed job-stealing migrant workers that Homeland Security's policies purport to police. The media's hysteria provoking the latter image is inaccurate, confirmed in a study conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center. Not only are overall numbers of immigrants lower than 2007, the study states, but the total number of unauthorized workers was down 400,000 as of March 2010. Apparently ICE is ignoring such statistics, as the agency hopes to achieve 400,000 deportations in 2011 so its spokespeople can label it another record year. Given that in January ICE deported over 53,000 people, it is well on its way.
I believe that if Ezad's last name was Sheen, this would never happen.
"It's pretty stressful," he sighed. "This past Christmas was very hard. I tried to give my family a really good Christmas because I'm not sure if this is going to be my last with them. They don't understand why. What do I tell them? It's heartbreaking."