Immigrant finds long road in navigating America’s justice and immigration system

Posted on: January 18th, 2012 by Teddy Wilson No Comments

Photo: Hope and Nazry Mustakim (courtesy of Hope Mustakim)

For the past 10 months Nazry Mustakim has been waiting in the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas.

“I told my boss I would be late for work,” said Nazry, or Naz, as his family and friends call him. On the morning of March 30, 2011, Naz answered a knock at his door to find four fully armed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. They informed him that his green card was being suspended pending a future hearing and they were taking him into DHS custody.

“There was no notification, no warning, and no correspondence,” said Naz. However, it was not that Naz was being taken into custody that was surprising, but that he was taken into custody a full four years and a green card renewal after a deportation order was given. Even so, Naz was led to believe that the arrest was just a formality and he would soon be back at home with his wife, Hope. “One of the female ICE officers told me that this is just an administrative arrest, we will take you to the office and set a bond,” said Naz.

Navigating the Immigration System

In 1992 Naz immigrated to the United States with his family from Singapore, and became a legal permanent resident. In 2005 Naz developed a problem with drugs and alcohol. Eventually, after being arrested for drug possession several times, Naz voluntarily completed six months of rehabilitation in a faith-based treatment center. While at the Manna House in 2006, Naz found that his newfound religious faith helped him get clean.

In 2007, Naz’s prior drug arrests led him to a courtroom. “My attorney was telling me that because of the case I could get prison time, and he asked me, do you want to go to prison or not,” said Naz. While Naz says he was advised pleading guilty to felony drug charges could “affect” his immigration status, his priority was avoiding prison time. The plea bargain did more than label him a convicted felon; it also violated the terms of his green card placing him under the immigration umbrella of “aggravated felon.”

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, little is known about how often aggravated felony provisions are used and the government publishes no statistics on the number of individuals it has sought to deport, or actually deported, on aggravated felony grounds. The laws governing the definition of aggravated felonies are very broad, encompassing convictions for violating “any law or regulation of a state, United States, or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance.” This provision, then, would include both drug traffickers and those with possession of small amounts of illegal drugs. The last time the definition of aggravated felonies was update was through the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

Detention Watch Network has launched a campaign calling on Congress to repeal the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act mandating the detention of undocumented immigrants. The Florida Independent reported how the law has torn families apart and violated due process. Despite calls for reform, promises from the Obama Administration to reform the system in order to reduce abuses have not taken place.

Naz’s wife, Hope, feels that the system failed him. “He was not referred to an immigration attorney,” said Hope. “The then District Attorney and Judge told him that it could affect his immigration status but no one told him he would surely get deported. The laws haven’t changed since 1996.You can easily talk to any immigration attorney that will tell you, you will definitely be deported with an aggravated felony.”

Naz never served a day in prison, and he even re-applied for his green card. It was approved. For Naz, it felt like this chapter in his life was now behind him. “I was like OK, I’ve got my green card after my arrest, everything is starting to go back to normal,” said Naz. In fact, in the years that followed Naz became the very model of someone making the best of a second chance.

Vince Hartsfield, program director of the Manna House, told the Texas Independent the about role that faith plays in the recovery of those in the program and the discipline demanded from each person to achieve that recovery. “Manna House is a four to six months intense residential treatment facility that is faith based with holistic intentions of treating the whole man,” said Hartsfield. “The spirit of God is the authority of change at the Manna House. The process of change is definitely challenging because we ask each man to know that recovery isn’t for the needy it’s for the greedy. The men wake up at 4:30 am each day and don’t get back to bed until 10 pm that evening.”

Hartsfield remembers what Naz was like when he first arrived, and saw the transformation first hand. “Naz came to Manna House weighing about 100 pounds, frail and dope sick; but he was determined from the onset of treatment to be a better person,” said Hartsfield. “Mr. Mustakim followed the instructions of the counselor, he confronted his peers on their negative behavior, gave to them when he didn’t have to, was open for any kind of information that would make him a better person and he turned to Jesus for his strength.”

Naz’s transformation was so impressive and so complete as a prime example of the Manna House Program that when he attained Phase III status a structured position of senior resident was created just for him and is still a part of the program to this day. “This position is given to the individual that has exemplified role model behavior throughout his treatment stay,” said Hartsfield. “This is what Naz represented while he was at the Manna House.

The Manna House had such an impact on Naz’s life, that he would look to give back to the place that had helped him overcome his addictions. His duties there included helping the house manager to maintain the traditions of Manna House, maintain peace among peers, overseeing the well-being of all peers and to report to the house manager or staff on performance of peers in the house. He did all this while attending college at TSTC until he graduated in 2009.

Life in a Private Detention Facility

In a phone interview with Naz from the detention facility were he has been detained since his arrest, he told the Texas Independent about his daily living conditions. “All of us who are detained here live in an open area like a homeless shelter, with beds against the wall, and benches in the middle,” said Naz. “We are confined to the dorm area and the rec [recreation] area. The rec area is about forty feet by forty feet, and the dorm area is about eighty feet by one hundred feet. There are about 100 people per dorm, and there are twenty dorms.”
Life in a detention facility can be monotonous. Some of the immigrants there pass the time by playing cards or pickup games of basketball. “Everyone has their own little thing to pass the time,” said Naz. During his time there Naz has voluntarily chosen to work in the detention facility. “I used to make $3 a day working in the kitchen – serving the food, cleaning, mopping for five hours a day. Now I am an intake cleaner. I make the same amount of money sweeping and mopping the intake area.”

While the immigrants detained at the facility are predominantly Latino, there are a variety of nationalities represented. “Most of them are Hispanics from Mexico and Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. There are also people from Jamaica, China, India, and Nepal.” This international community of immigrants compares legal notes on their cases. “Especially at first, people will ask, how did they catch you? They will ask what happened. And as time goes on they will ask how is your case? And who’s your judge?”

Naz sees different guards every day, as they rotate through the facility. While he has never experienced any physical abuse from the guards, he expressed mixed feelings about them. “Some of them are good, some of them are not good,” said Naz. The most significant negative complaint he had was that the rules were not enforced equally. “The rules are not standard among each one of them. What one permits one day another will not the next.”

Looking Toward the Road Ahead

Photo: Hope and Nazry Mustakim (courtesy of Hope Mustakim)

Barbra Hines of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School told the Texas Independent that it is very common for immigrants to be deported for felonies. The so-called “aggravated felonies” Hines says are an immigration construct and include not just felonies but misdemeanors. However, these laws are unlikely to change. “The public just doesn’t have a sympathetic view of immigrants who commit any kind of crime,” says Hines.

Today Naz is scheduled to have another immigration hearing, which he may not be able to attend since his dorm at the detention facility has been locked down due to chicken pox. The Mustakims’ attorney informed them that Janice Warder, the District Attorney in Cooke County, Texas granted the writ to set aside the original case and will re-indict him for a lesser charge. This would mean that he could no longer be labeled an “aggravated felon.” After more time in detention and another hearing, there is the possibility that Naz could be granted a waiver and return home.

“Every little detail is so complicated,” said Hope. “We are waiting, and don’t know how long this will take to play out.” As the different scenarios play out, Hope and Naz continue to have faith that eventually justice will prevail. “We just know that one day it will be over. We see everything with a spiritual lens; you just have to have the right perspective.”

For Hope, her husband’s ordeal isn’t simply another immigration case, it is their lives. “This is America where everyone believes in second chances, and he made the most of his,” said Hope. “None of these cases are ever the same and you can’t judge the situation on face value because this could be you. While some people may think that these families should be divided, they don’t realize that it could be their neighbor that they want to see separated by draconian, outdated laws.”

Photo: Hope and Nazry Mustakim (courtesy of Hope Mustakim)

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