PORT ISABEL, Texas — Despite holding a permit entitling him to work in the United States, Adnan Asif Parveen found himself lying on the cold floor of a Border Patrol detention facility with an aluminum sheet for a blanket.
Even if he hadn’t been crammed into a gated room with three dozen migrants recently arrested at the border, it would have been difficult to sleep. His wife didn’t know where he was. And he had barely eaten. For the six days he spent in Border Patrol’s custody last month, he said the only food he received was a pork sandwich every eight hours. He explained that as a Muslim, he had to refuse. When the guards offered nothing else, he picked off the meat and ate just the bread.
Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on the case, citing privacy concerns. A spokeswoman referred HuffPost to the agency’s detention standards, which require its officers to “remain cognizant of a detainee’s religious or other dietary restrictions.”
A few days after Asif’s arrest, two officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement came to interview him about possible terrorist ties, he said. They took his phone and searched his contact list and social media. “They asked if at the mosque they say anything against the USA government,” Asif told HuffPost. “I said, no, the mosque is where you go to pray.”
It’s unclear what could’ve prompted the questioning, other than Asif’s national origin and religion. ICE declined to discuss the interview or confirm whether it took place. Asif has no criminal record in the United States, where he’s lived since 2014, according to his lawyer Cathy Potter. He says he has no record in Spain, where he was raised, or in Pakistan, where he was born.
Several times over Asif’s six days in Border Patrol’s custody, agents presented him with paperwork authorizing his deportation to Spain and asked if he wanted to sign. The last time, Asif was visibly upset. When one of the agents asked why, Asif said he was worried about his wife back in Ohio, who struggles with her health. The agent allowed him to make a five-minute phone call. When she answered, Asif found she had flown to Texas days earlier to look for him. After he hung up, he flatly refused to sign his deportation order.
“I wanted to be with my wife,” Asif said. “And I said no — I’m not signing my deportation. I’m not going back like that.”
Asif is now locked up at an ICE detention center in Port Isabel in South Texas, his work permit set to expire this month. But his arrest and looming possibility of deportation highlight how the bureaucratic complexity of the immigration enforcement system and peculiar scrutiny cast upon Muslims can jeopardize the status of immigrants ― even if they hold documents allowing them to work here.
“This just blows my mind,” Potter, Asif’s lawyer, told HuffPost. “He’s not a danger to his community. He’s certainly not a flight risk. He’s got a wife and he’s devoted to her. Yet he’s detained and ICE refuses to release him.”
But Potter suspects her client’s problems with U.S. immigration authorities began well before he drove to south Texas.
“I just don’t think it makes sense that immigration can tell someone it’s OK to be here and then take that away and say they’re going to deport them.”
Asif had no intention to stay in the United States when he came to visit his uncle and cousins in New York in 2014. But he struck up a conversation with a woman named Jennifer, who happened to live in Columbus, Ohio, on a dating app called Badoo. By coincidence, Asif’s uncle owned a gas station out there and the two planned to visit.
Asif took Jennifer on their first date for coffee at Burger King. He was still learning English back then, and she didn’t know any of the languages he spoke ― Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi or Spanish. So he translated phrases on the spot, gestured with his hands and scrolled through family pictures on his phone. Their limited communication was effective enough for them to understand they wanted to keep seeing each other. Asif never made it back to New York, let alone Spain.
“I didn’t like the idea of him leaving,” Jennifer said.
They moved in together, ignoring for the moment that the decision meant his legal status in the country had slipped away.
“When you are happy with someone, you don’t think about your problems,” he said.
At times, he considered returning to Europe with Jennifer. But they agreed that the United States offered better work opportunities, which meant getting him on the right side of the law.
They married in September of 2016, on Jennifer’s 35th birthday. She sponsored him for a green card. Because he entered legally, he didn’t have to return to Europe to apply. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services gave him a work permit and within a year had scheduled an interview — the final step in the green card process.
But as the day approached, USCIS canceled the interview, telling the couple Asif’s application required a more extensive background check. Asif and Jennifer called periodically for updates, but a year and a half later, the check remained incomplete and the new interview unscheduled.
The work permit, however, opened up more of the opportunities he’d hoped for. He left his old job working off the books and started driving for Uber and Lyft. He got a major pay bump last year after joining his cousin’s business, criss-crossing the country as a semi truck driver. His last route took him to south Texas — an assignment he would have refused had he understood the implications.
As Asif drove toward Falfurrias around 1 a.m. on Jan. 11, he passed a sign warning him of an inspection station one mile away. He didn’t understand why he had to stop, but a second sign offered a clue: “Smuggling illegal aliens is a federal crime,” it read.
Falfurrias lies about 80 miles from the nearest crossing to Mexico, but since the mid-1990s, Border Patrol has expanded checkpoints up to 100 miles into the interior of the United States to halt migrants and seize contraband, over the objections of legal groups that view the stops as systematic violations of the 4th amendment’s protection against arbitrary searches. Outsiders are often only dimly aware that the checkpoints lie along virtually every major road extending from the U.S.-Mexico border, though they routinely result in high-profile stops. Country singer Willie Nelson, rapper Snoop Dogg, and former Texas Monthly contributing editor Al Reinart are among the hapless victims busted for pot at such checkpoints, which are often staffed with drug-sniffing dogs.
Agents who staff the checkpoints usually ask drivers just one question: “Are you a U.S. citizen?” When it was Asif’s turn to pass a flashing camera and park under the metal canopy, he said “no,” and offered his work permit.
The document had expired in August. Asif had applied for a renewal a month before then, but had yet to receive it. This shouldn’t have been a problem ― USCIS automatically extends work authorizations like Asif’s for six months to avoid problems with processing delays. But the agent pulled Asif aside for questioning.
Asif searched his phone for proof of the automatic extension, but Border Patrol declined to accept it. By around 7 a.m., officers had taken him into custody.
Jennifer found out about her husband’s arrest from his cousin, who had to go to Texas to recover the truck. Two days later, she flew there to look for him. She had no luck until the day she received the call. She saw him for the first time since his arrest after Border Patrol transferred him to ICE detention at Port Isabel.
For about two weeks, she visited him daily. But the emergency visit cost her the part-time job she held caring for people with disabilities. Without Asif’s income, she returned to Columbus, where now she is driving for Uber and Lyft.
“I just don’t think it makes sense that immigration can tell someone it’s OK to be here and then take that away and say they’re going to deport them,” Jennifer told HuffPost. “A lot of things don’t make sense right now.”
It’s not clear why Border Patrol chose to detain Asif at the checkpoint, though bureaucratic inefficiency might help explain it. Border Patrol checkpoints have ensnared others who shouldn’t have had problems with immigration authorities. Agents have detained several recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program shielding undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and teens, for example. Asif’s lawyer Potter suspects that the agents who stopped him lacked access to information from USCIS that showed the validity of her client’s work permit.
But Potter thinks her client landed in detention because he’d already faced discrimination when applying for his green card. USCIS declined to comment about the case, citing privacy concerns. But the agency has faced repeated lawsuits for indefinitely delaying green card, visa and citizenship applications for Muslim applicants without citing reasons.
A 2012 lawsuit unearthed a program called the “Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program,” or CARRP, that many lawyers view as an illegal screening program targeting people from Muslim-majority countries.
The program began without public notice during the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency and has continued until the present day. USCIS has largely refrained from discussing it outside the context of lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act Requests. The American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing to overturn it, estimates that the program delayed more than 40,000 applications from 2008 to 2016 alone.
“We have long-standing concerns that CARRP targets people based on innocent activity and wrongly and unfairly focuses on Muslims and members of Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian communities,” said Hugh Handeyside, one of the ACLU lawyers suing to halt the program.
USCIS doesn’t tell those targeted by the program why the agency delays their applications. But attorney James Hacking, who has filed more than 200 federal lawsuits challenging delays in visa, green card and citizenship applications, said Asif’s case of indefinite delay for an interview over an unspecified background check fits the pattern.
Although Hacking sees the hidden hand of CARRP behind the unspecified delays, he’s never received confirmation. But USCIS almost never fights him when he files the cases, he says.
“Once I sue, things start moving,” Hacking told HuffPost. “It’s sort of like ‘Groundhog Day.’ It’s the same case. It’s the same situation every time.”
For Hacking, a 12-month delay is the benchmark for filing a lawsuit alleging an unconstitutional use of CARRP to derail an application. Asif filed his application nearly two years ago.
“That’s why he’s being treated this way,” Potter said. “Of course, if you’re Muslim, you must be a terrorist. What other reason could it be? … They’ve apparently been doing background checks for close to two years in this case. That doesn’t say much about their ability to do a background check.”
Asif went before a judge at the detention center, who asked if he wanted to apply for asylum. Asif declined. He’s not afraid to return to Spain. He just wants to continue his green card application to remain with his wife. The judge refused to deport him.
That leaves Asif’s case in the hands of his deportation officer, who had yet to speak with him by last week. ICE declined to discuss its plans for Asif. His four-year visa overstay made him subject to arrest, an ICE spokeswoman wrote in a statement. Release decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
“I don’t know what they want from me,” Asif said. “I don’t know why they are even holding me here.”
For the moment, he can do little more than wait. ICE detention is “nothing good,” he says, but it’s better than his experience in the hands of Border Patrol. He’s no longer crammed into a room with dozens of other detainees. He gets his own bed. And he can eat the food.
This post was updated to include additional details provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after publication.