Mahmood’s American Dream
I first met Mahmood back in 1989. I was teaching a class in US History and Civics for immigrants who had gotten Amnesty through the Reagan initiative. Applicants got temporary work papers if they could prove they had been in the country for a set period of time. Before getting a green card, or permanent residency, they had to present their paperwork, prove “good moral character,” pass an English test, and pass a test on US history and civics.
Mahmood was from rural Pakistan. He had been in the US for many years. He had a wife and an infant daughter. He drove a livery cab in NYC, 12 hours a day, 6 days per week. And then he came to class 3 hours per day, 5 days per week, to learn about George Washington and the Constitution and the Boston Tea Party.
Mahmood was a stellar student. He had very little formal education in his native Pakistan. But he was hungry to learn. He loved the stories of the historical figures. He diligently memorized names and dates and praised the distinct roles of the three branches of government.
But unlike the other students in the class, Mahmood did not have an upcoming date for his immigration interview. He had missed the deadline to apply for Amnesty.
Someone had convinced him to become part of an obscure class action suit of individuals who should have qualified, but who were temporarily out of the country on certain key application dates. He was told that all he had to do was purchase a a forged boarding pass for a flight he was never on, as evidence that he was out of the country on the key dates named in the lawsuit.
Mahmood took my course twice. Just to make sure he knew all of the material. His classmates passed their interviews, and went on to get green cards. Mahmood had a temporary work permit, pending resolution of the lawsuit.
In the years that followed, Mahmood would stop by to visit me from time to time. He would bring pictures of his wife and daughter. We didn’t have cell phone pictures back then. He carried his photos in his wallet. His infant transformed into a toddler, then a school girl missing a front tooth, and later into a smiling tween. An American girl. A New Yorker who won prizes at science fairs and made the honor roll and appeared in school plays. He was so proud of her.
One day, about 13 years after he had taken my class, I was outside of my office when Mahmood drove by in his yellow cab. He had saved his money, and purchased a coveted medallion for a yellow cab. A yellow cab medallion is like a mortgage. He had told me about the medallion on previous visits. How he brought up his credit score. Saved enough to make a down-payment. He now had an employee, who drove the cab at night. He drove during the day. He was saving now to buy a house. He was living the American dream.
Mahmood honked and waved me over and insisted I get in the cab with him.
He was bubbling over with excitement. He told me that God had put me on the street at the moment he was driving by. He said that I had been there with him at the beginning of his journey. That I had taught him all about the history and government of the United States. He prattled off details about the Bill of Rights and Patrick Henry to prove he had not forgotten what he had learned in my class more than a decade before.
It was a special day, he told me. His last day in limbo. After so many years, he finally had his interview with immigration the following morning. He would finally, he told me, get his green card.
It was 2002, I think. After the 9/11 attacks. Muslim men, Pakistani men, were under unprecedented scrutiny. In spite of the fact that he had lived in New York for decades, worked 72 hours per week, in spite of the fact that he had an excellent credit score, a yellow taxi medallion, a teenage daughter who was an honors student, I knew he didn’t really have a valid immigration case.
I asked him if he had a lawyer, who would go with him to his immigration appointment. He dismissed my concerns, and told me he had faith in God, and faith in America. In an uncharacteristically intimate moment, he grasped my hands while we were stopped at a red light. His eyes were tearing up a little bit.
“Pray for me, Miss KC,” he said. “Pray for me.”
I tried to convince him to postpone his appointment. To get a lawyer. To NOT show up at the newly branded Department of Homeland Security Office with a forged boarding pass he had purchased more than a decade before.
He dismissed my concerns. “I have all of my papers, Miss KC, ” he said, proudly displaying a manila folder. In his mind, he had done nothing wrong. He had decades worth of carefully filed tax returns. Bank statements. Credit rating. Licenses he had earned. There was that one boarding pass that he had purchased. But everything else was in order. His only crime was missing a filing deadline, and then buying a piece of paper to justify missing that deadline. Other immigrants, just like him, had gotten their green cards long ago. Then their citizenship. Now it was his turn.
“I love America, Miss KC,” he told me over and over again. “America is good to me.”
I tried in vain, for I don’t know how long. At a certain point he pulled out his wallet to display the most recent photos of his family, and to tell me about their accomplishments. His teenage daughter, he told me, wanted to be an American astronaut.
Eventually, I gave up. I then begged him to call me after the interview. To let me know what happened. He promised he would come by my office the next day. That after his wife and daughter, I would be the first person to hear the good news. That he was finally getting a green card.
The next day I waited for Mahmood. And the day after that. I tried not to think about it. He worked long hours. Had so many obligations. Certainly he was too busy to stop by or call.
But I knew.
A few days later I dug through ancient files and found the phone number he had used to register for classes back in 1989. It was out of service.
Weeks went by. Months. And then years.
Mahmood was gone.
He was probably taken into custody during his interview at Homeland Security. Did they handcuff him? Send him to a detention center, a jail, before putting him on a plane to Pakistan, a country he had left half a lifetime ago? The gentle, eternally optimistic man who I had known for so many years. I have pushed the images out of my mind so many times.
And his wife and daughter? His wife’s residency was dependent on his fraudulent case. Was his wife deported too? Did she go with him voluntarily, to Pakistan? Or did she stay, undocumented, in the shadows, alone with her daughter?
And the 14 year old honors student, who was a US citizen. Was she here with her mom? Did they leave her here, to finish school alone, in the only country she had ever known?
Or did she accompany her parents to Pakistan?
To Pakistan. To the country where, a few years later, school girl Malala Yusuf would be shot in the head for going to school.
His daughter would be almost 30 right now. Did she go on to be a scientist, maybe even an astronaut, as her father had hoped? Or did her education end abruptly at age 14? Did this girl from New York spend her teenage years and young adulthood under the shadow of the Taliban?
In immigration cases, you are not entitled to an attorney. If you rob someone on the street, you get an attorney. But if you are in deportation, unless you brought an attorney with you, or someone sends an attorney to you, you are on your own.
Mahmood was deported during the Bush years. A lot of criminal aliens were deported during the Obama years. And now we are living in the next great wave of deportations.
I will never know what happened to Mahmood. In the eyes of the law, he was a criminal alien, with a fraudulent immigration case. He was a Muslim. A Pakistani man in the post 9/11 era. He was clearly deportable.
You will hear a lot about the deportation of “criminal aliens” in the weeks and months and maybe years to come. Many of these “criminals” will be guilty of crimes like Mahmood’s. Immigrants who made up a social security number in order to get a job, or who used their cousin’s ID. Immigrants who tried to wade through the complex immigration process, and followed someone’s bad advice.
Mahmood is often in my thoughts. To me he will always be the stellar student who loved Abraham Lincoln and the Bill of Rights. The proud father and loving husband. The excellent networker who learned about credit scores and got a coveted yellow taxi medallion. The man who set goals, and who worked hard to achieve them. The eternal optimist, who called me “Miss KC” and who asked for my prayers.
Our nation is a little emptier without him.
Photo by Bruce Armstrong