Muslim exodus from U.S. unravels tightknit enclaves
TRIBUNE SPECIAL REPORT: TOSSED OUT OF AMERICA
Families fearing deportation flee north, hoping to take advantage of Canada's more accommodating policies. But a pending pact with the U.S. soon will close that door.
By Flynn McRoberts, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune national correspondent Cam Simpson contributed to this report
On the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Shakeel Ahmed loaded his wife and five children into the family's green 1994 Mercury mini-van, their years in America reduced to a pair of cardboard boxes stuffed with children's clothes.
The rest they left behind: a television, furniture, pots and pans, blankets and pillows. Ahmed figured he had little time to waste because word had spread through the sweet shops and mosques around Devon Avenue, the heart of Chicago's South Asian community, that the federal government was deporting illegal immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries.
As he drove down Devon for the last time, Ahmed's thoughts turned to a cabdriver friend who had left with his family just two days before. Another companion they'd played cricket with in Washington Park had left months earlier.
Now it was his turn.
"I never cry in my life," he said. "The day I left Chicago, tears came out of my eyes."
And so the Ahmeds joined the vanguard of those fleeing America, not
only from Devon but from Warren Road in Dearborn, Mich., Coney Island Avenue
Brooklyn and the other main streets of America's Muslim and Arab enclaves.
Federal officials saw this as a bonus: immigration enforcement, free of charge to U.S. taxpayers.
But the targeting of men from Muslim countries in the aftermath of the
Sept. 11 attacks affected more than just the men who were deported and
their families. It sent
aftershocks rumbling through the American neighborhoods where they lived and, in many cases, thrived.
Central to the crackdown were initiatives to find those who had outstanding
deportation orders and to require men from predominantly Muslim countries
with immigration authorities. Government officials say they are targeting nations where terrorists operate, not Muslims, and contend that with national security a
priority after the attacks, the measures were justified.
In the months that followed the Ahmeds' departure, the smattering of
those fleeing became an exodus. Many of these people had seen others heed
the pleas of
community activists to register, only to have husbands, brothers and sons detained and eventually deported.
The government's campaign drove families by the thousands to leave all
they had built in America--selling medical practices, gas stations, restaurants,
furniture for whatever they could get.
Many returned to the countries from which they came. Many others, desperate
not to return to their homelands, packed their worldly possessions into
cars and vans
and made their way to Canada.
In the winter cold, family after family poured into overwhelmed shelters
in border cities such as Buffalo and Detroit and refugee agencies in places
From January through March of this year, 2,763 Pakistani nationals filed
claims for refugee protection with Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board,
more than a
fourfold increase from the 671 claims filed in the first three months of 2002.
Their reasoning was simple: Under Canadian law, foreign visitors have
more rights than they would in the U.S. Families awaiting immigration hearings
in Canada get
basic medical care, help finding jobs and other assistance. In the U.S., many Muslim men have awaited immigration hearings behind bars.
"With special registration and all the other crackdowns, there's a climate
of fear," said Elizabeth Woike, assistant director of Vive La Casa, a refugee
Buffalo whose reputation for helping immigrants stretches as far as Nepal. "People feel if they ask for asylum in the U.S., they don't think they'll get a fair hearing,
particularly if you're a Muslim man."
But Canada won't be so inviting much longer. Under a pending pact with
Washington called the Safe Third Country Agreement, the Canadian government
months will make it much more difficult for refugees to enter from the U.S.
Refugee agencies predict that, coming as a second American registration
deadline for men from Muslim countries nears, the border clampdown could
set off another
run to the border. Only this time, the door will be locked.
As Jean-Pierre Morin, a spokesman for Canada's Citizenship and Immigration agency, put it, "They're going to be turned back."
Even U.S. citizens flee
Most years, hundreds of Bangladeshis line Devon Avenue in March to celebrate
their homeland's independence from Pakistan in 1971. But this year, just
showed up: The celebration fell shortly before the deadline for men from Bangladesh and several other predominantly Muslim countries to register with the federal
An even more startling barometer of the fear that had swept over Chicago's
Muslim community came a few months later. Roughly 20,000 Pakistanis typically
either side of Devon each August to mark the independence of Pakistan. This year, no more than 8,000 showed up.
The sparse turnout of the parades, community leaders believe, reflected the departure of many families and the anxiety of those who remained.
Missing were not only those who had fled to Canada but thousands more who voluntarily returned to Pakistan.
And it wasn't just those who were living illegally in the U.S., having
overstayed visas or ignored deportation orders. Such was the fear and panic
that swept along
Devon and other Muslim and Arab enclaves that even green-card holders and naturalized U.S. citizens fled, worried they might be targeted next.
The fallout from that exodus can be seen in empty apartments, vacant storefronts and short lines at the cash registers of local businesses.
"Totally dead, nobody here," said Sayed Kazmi, the owner of a Devon
Avenue women's clothing boutique who first noticed the drop-off in customers
about a month
after the March 21 registration deadline for Pakistanis. "Mostly, they run away to Canada."
The Ahmeds were among them, even though they feared that by leaving
Chicago their son's medical care would suffer. Doctors in the Middle East
had given Shakeel
Ahmed's first child, Usman, little chance of a normal life after he was born with cerebral palsy. His legs were so twisted that he barely could stand on his own, let
But in March 1996, his father obtained a U.S. visitor's visa, and the
family came to Chicago for a second opinion. Ahmed worked as a self-employed
After surgery and eight months of therapy at Children's Memorial Hospital,
Usman was able to walk on his own, climb stairs, even kick a ball. When
he and his
physical therapist, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, would walk the hospital's white-tiled basement hallways, Usman would stop people and say: "Hey, I know how to walk. You
But his father's visa, which a lawyer helped Ahmed renew several times,
expired in 2000. By then his household had three American citizens--girls
born to his wife in
There was no point in him applying for a green card because he had no
grounds for doing so. He had little choice but to hope that U.S. policymakers
would offer a
new round of amnesty for undocumented workers.
Sept. 11 changed all that, with calls to toughen rather than ease immigration restrictions.
Ahmed turned to Christopher Helt, a Chicago attorney who had won an
earlier political asylum case using the novel argument that the lack of
available to an autistic child from Pakistan rose to the level of persecution of a protected class.
In February 2002, Helt got Usman's story on the "CBS Evening News."
Soon after that, an immigration judge in Chicago set an October hearing
Usman's application for political asylum.
With the hearing five weeks away, though, Ahmed decided he couldn't
risk losing in court and being deported. Painful as the decision was--with
Usman on the verge
of gaining physical independence--he chose to flee to Canada.
An open house
Last winter, so many Pakistani families had raced north along America's
highways that crossings like the one at Lacolle, Quebec, near the Vermont
overwhelmed. Canadian immigration authorities, unprepared for the crush of people, began sending them back to the U.S. side to await interviews.
The Howes of Burlington heard of the crisis and called Vermont Refugee Assistance, offering their home.
Mark Howe, 45, is the director of music at St. Paul's Cathedral in Burlington.
He and his wife, Sarah, a medical writer for a diagnostic software company,
felt that as
Christians they had to have "an ethic of hospitality," he said, "especially for people who are aliens in the land and don't have the same rights that citizens do."
But there was something more as well.
"We both really disagreed with this special registration thing," he
said. "It seemed to both Sarah and me, for the federal government to single
out people from
Pakistan and that part of the world, that was such a vile thing. And we just wanted to get in the way of that if we could."
Before long, the Howes received a call from Patrick Giantonio, director
of Vermont Refugee Assistance. "There's a family coming in," he told them.
possibly put them up?"
The family--a couple with two disabled teenagers--arrived on a bus from
Queens on Feb. 19. The father had been a farmer in the Northwest Frontier
Wild West of Pakistan, and several years ago brought his family to New York, where he pumped gas and did odd jobs.
They stayed in the upstairs bedroom of the Howes' home, a couple of blocks from the shore of Lake Champlain, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border.
A few days later, Giantonio and a Salvation Army van arrived to take
the family to their interview with Canadian immigration authorities at
the border. By that night,
they were in Montreal.
For 16 years, Giantonio's group has been recruiting Vermonters to house the world's dispossessed.
The group has seen families scarred by the genocide of Rwanda and widows
whose husbands died at the hands of the Taliban. It has become accustomed
with people fleeing Third World poverty, chaos and tyranny.
But something distinguished the droves of Pakistani families who arrived last winter, Giantonio said.
They felt they had to run for safety from the United States.
A change of faces
North of the border, refugee agencies began noticing a change in the faces coming through their doors last winter.
With thousands of Muslims fleeing America last winter, Canadian cities
from Vancouver to Toronto suddenly were teeming with families desperate
for one last
chance to avoid being returned to the deprivations of their homelands.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Toronto's Sojourn House saw virtually no
Pakistani families at its headquarters on the second floor of a stone church
building just two
blocks from a lavish Queen Street mall.
"After 9/11, it was our largest group," said Shaun Williams, an outreach
worker who helps new arrivals. From January to March of this year alone,
Pakistanis accounted for 54 of the 152 people served by Sojourn House.
Social workers helped them get work permits and other assistance that Canada grants to those awaiting hearings on whether they will get refugee status.
In late February, Shakil Butt walked up the battered steps of Sojourn
House. The former Chicago factory worker had just spent 45 days in a Canadian
center after being stopped at the border crossing between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.
The youngest of eight children, Butt, 28, came from a politically connected
family in Lahore, Pakistan. After working several years in Chicago, his
visa expired and
he began hearing the stories of deportations at his mosque near Devon Avenue.
So he fled the city in January, taking a Greyhound bus from Chicago to Detroit--then a short cab ride to the border crossing at Windsor.
But in less than nine months, and with a loan from his brother in London,
Butt had converted a Dunkin' Donuts into his own restaurant on Toronto's
where Canadian maple leaf flags fly alongside the green-and-white banner of Pakistan.
On Sept. 26, he opened G. Ali Baba--yet another example of how some
of the lifeblood that once coursed through Devon Avenue is now pumping
new energy into
cities such as Toronto.
Butt has been reunited with two of his old teammates from his days playing
cricket in Washington Park on Chicago's South Side--Shakeel Ahmed and Nadeem
Mukhi, a Chicago cabdriver.
On the second day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, the smell of chicken curry and the traditional rice dish biryani filled the air of Mukhi's Toronto apartment.
For the second year, Nadeem Mukhi and his wife are celebrating Ramadan
in Canada. It is a time when they especially feel the ache of separation
Mona Mukhi should be bringing her chicken curry and biryani to her in-laws' home on Chicago's North Side for fast-breaking suppers.
Not this year.
Nadeem Mukhi came to Chicago in 1991 at the age of 22. After meeting
and marrying Mona, the couple had two daughters--Haiba, now 4, and Ramila,
months. Both are U.S. citizens, born at Swedish Covenant Hospital on the North Side.
Generally, immigrants living in the U.S. for 10 years can apply for
permanent residency and obtain a green card if their children are U.S.
citizens. Mukhi had assumed
his chances were even better because his two older brothers are naturalized U.S. citizens, and one of them sponsored him. Those sponsored by close relatives who
are citizens have a stronger case for getting permanent residency status.
But 10 years passed and still no green card--to this day, Mukhi doesn't
know exactly why. He felt a growing impatience with the U.S. immigration
feared that the Sept. 11 attacks might eventually lead to his family's deportation.
"I was there 12 years--and nothing. How long you're going to wait for status?" he said. "I was scared. I have a family. If they take me, who's gonna feed them?"
He decided he couldn't wait any longer. After selling their belongings for pennies on the dollar, the Mukhis loaded up for Canada on Sept. 9, 2002.
In Toronto, the government helped the former Chicago cabbie train to
become a security guard and got him a job patrolling his family's apartment
midnight to 5 a.m. In just the first several months on the job, Mukhi said, he has gone from making $6.50 to $12 an hour.
Job training, basic medical care and other help: It's a relative wealth of assistance compared to what is available to such families in the U.S.
"They treat you like you are a citizen," Mukhi said. "It's unbelievable."
But Canada's more generous policy already is taking on a tougher edge.
The acceptance rate for refugee claims by Pakistani nationals dropped
from 54 percent in 2002 to 39 percent for the first nine months of this
year, according to the
Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board.
In the coming months, final rules for the Safe Third Country Agreement
between the U.S. and Canada will be published. The agreement is expected
reduce the ability of families such as the Mukhis to cross the border legally.
"Canada has always been a safety valve for refugees from America," said Chris Owens, head of Vive La Casa, the Buffalo refugee center. "That valve will be shut."