The New York Times has a story on Tanveer Ahmad, a blip on no one’s radar. Nothing terrible or violent happened to him — he died of a heart attack in a prison in New Jersey — but I was moved by the story, and thought it might be worth taking a moment to pay attention to it.
In 2005, a Pakistani man named Tanveer Ahmad died while being held for an immigration offense in Monmouth County Jail in New Jersey. He had been in the U.S. since the early 1990s, when he had come in on a visitor’s visa and stayed. He had married two American women, one in Texas, and another in the Bronx. He had also apparently married a woman back in Pakistan on a visit home in 1999, an event which led to the collapse of the first marriage (he remained legally married to the woman in Pakistan). While working at a frequently-robbed gas station in Texas, he had an incident that came back to haunt him later:
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 businessâ€™s unlicensed gun to stop a robbery. (link)
I can understand the legality of this — possessing an unlicensed firearm can be big trouble (though it sounds like it wasn’t his firearm, but the one owned by the owner of the business). Still, there is definitely a tragic irony here: Tanveer Ahmad was punished for being robbed. As a result of that misdemeanor involving a handgun, Ahmad was classified a “violent” offender, eligible for immediate detention and deportation irrespective of any mitigating circumstances.
Tanveer Ahmad’s immigration status wasn’t simple. Like thousands of other people, he had tried various options to find a path to a Green Card, but failed. Until he was actually imprisoned in 2005, it didn’t seem like there was any particular pressure on him from the USCIS to return to Pakistan:
Like several million other residents of the United States, Mr. Ahmad occupied the complicated gray zone between illegal and legal immigration. Though he had overstayed his first visa, he had repeatedly been authorized to work while his applications for â€œadjustment of statusâ€ were pending. Twice before 9/11 he had been allowed back into the country after visits to Pakistan.
But the green card application sponsored by his Bronx-born wife, Shanise Farrar, had been officially denied in March 2005, leaving him without a valid visa. Although the couple could have reapplied, by the time he was arrested they had not spoken in more than a year, and Ms. Farrar, who had received a letter threatening a marriage fraud investigation, was unaware of his detention. (link)
So yes, for at least a few months in 2005 he seems to have reached an endpoint in his immigration quest. But Tanveer Ahmad wasn’t a criminal, and he wasn’t taking jobs away from ordinary Americans. He was driving cabs and working the night shift at gas stations in rough neighborhoods. The latter at least is dangerous and undesirable work — work most Americans aren’t willing to do.
It’s also worth mentioning that, once he was detained, Tanveer Ahmad was ready to be deported, and had told his lawyer that he would waive any right to contest his deportation: he had no desire to remain in detention. The part of the story involving Shanise Farrar is particularly sad, especially the reason she gives for breaking up with him in 2001-2002:
As she tells it, theirs was an intimate relationship ruined by 9/11. With regret, she recalled her reaction: â€œI was just cursing him. I was like, â€˜You people come here and kill us and mess up our city.â€™ He was trying to convince me and prove to me that heâ€™s a good man, not those people.â€
â€œI loved him,â€ she added. â€œIt was just, once the World Trade Center came down, I changed my mind.â€
I definitely knew some good people who got kind of xenophobic after 9/11, but I have never heard of this before. (Has anyone else heard of 9/11 breakups like this?)
Finally, Tanveer Ahmad died after a few weeks in prison, apparently of a heart attack. The only really “actionable” event leading to his death was the neglect by his prison guard, who ignored his requests for medical attention when it was urgently needed. (It’s not the first time. Read this story from 2007 for several more instances of severe neglect of immigration detainees leading to possibly preventable death.)
As background, according to an earlier story in the New York Times, there were, in 2007, somewhere in the range of 27,000 people in American immigration detention, held in regular prisons across the U.S. Many of them are people like Tanveer Ahmad, with complex immigration status and history, who were rounded up and imprisoned by authorities because of a run-in with police somewhere in their past and the new prosecutorial zealousness of USCIS after 9/11.
As of 2007, 62 of those prisoners had officially died in custody (Tanveer Ahmad’s name was not initially counted in that list of 62). Accused of abuses and neglect of these prisoners, the Department of Homeland Security created a watchdog agency to ensure that detainees are well-treated. That is a good thing. However, the USCIS has resisted pressure to regularize these detainees, giving them the same rights as regular criminal inmates. They remain in a kind of legal limbo: not officially “imprisoned,” but rather “detained” for however many months it takes to try them and, presumably, deport them.
And that is a little bit about Tanveer Ahmad, who died at age 43 in Monmouth County Jail.