A project of the Center for Community Change

Death in Detention: Details of a Life Lost

detention

Yesterday’s New York Times covers the story of an immigrant detained in 2005 who then died three weeks later, captive of a broken system. Until February of this year, the government refused to acknowledge the existence of Tanveer Ahmad.

Tanveer Ahmad, it turns out, was a longtime New York City cabdriver who had paid thousands of dollars in taxes and immigration application fees. Whether out of love, loneliness or the quest for a green card, he had twice married American women after entering the country on a visitor’s visa in 1993. His only trouble with the law was a $200 fine for disorderly conduct in 1997: While working at a Houston gas station, he had displayed the business’s unlicensed gun to stop a robbery.

After September 11th, this small misdemeanor was enough to get Ahmad arrested, under new and stricter laws.

It would come back to haunt him. For if Mr. Ahmad’s overlooked death showed how immigrants could vanish in detention, his overlooked American life shows how 9/11 changed the stakes for those caught in the nation’s tangle of immigration laws.

In the end, his body went back in a box to his native village, to be buried by his Pakistani widow and their two children, conceived on his only two trips home in a dozen years. He had always hoped to bring them all to the United States, his widow, Rafia Perveen, said in a tearful telephone interview through a translator.

“He said America is very good,” she recalled. “When it comes to the treatment of Muslims in the U.S., he had faith in the rule of law. He said, ‘In America, they don’t bother anyone just for no reason.’ ”

When immigration agents burst into Mr. Ahmad’s two-room Flatbush apartment on Aug. 2, 2005, they were looking for someone else, his friends say — a roommate suspected of violating his student visa by working. But they ordered Mr. Ahmad to report to immigration headquarters in Manhattan on Aug. 11.

Ahmad is the poster child of the almost impossibly complicated legal paths immigrants must walk in order to gain documents to back up their presence in this country.

Though he had overstayed his first visa, he had repeatedly been authorized to work while his applications for “adjustment of status” were pending. Twice before 9/11 he had been allowed back into the country after visits to Pakistan.

While the DHS cover-up of Ahmad’s death (and even his existence) are shocking, it is evident that this situation is not isolated. The backlogs and complications of the immigration bureaucracy in this country are driving away some of the best and the brightest in the country, while others die, locked up for a questionable reason and unacknowledged except for statistics used to bolster the very forces that killed them.

Yet if his death was not counted, his arrest was — it had been added to the agency’s anti-terrorism statistics, according to government documents showing he was termed a “collateral” apprehension in Operation Secure Commute, raids seeking visa violators after the London transit bombings.

I find this to be the worst kind of hypocrisy.

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