The inch-thick compilation of documents doesn’t read like a love story. But the papers might be necessary to hold together the marriage of one Waterloo couple.
The stack includes 12 months of bank statements showing joint financial activities. An original term life insurance policy with a spouse beneficiary. An original apartment lease, signed by two.
These records and more, soon to be mailed to a Des Moines immigration office, are an attempt to prove Malik Ahmad, 32, a Pakistani citizen, and Amy, 26, a Washburn native, share a life as husband and wife.
Most couples only have to convince their in-laws and friends their love is true. The Ahmads have to prove their commitment to the U.S. government.
The requirement isn’t unusual. Malik has applied to become a permanent resident of the United States, and all alien spouses of American citizens looking to secure a long-term spot in the United States must demonstrate they didn’t marry for a green card.
But the process for permanent residency has taken the Ahmads and their attorneys more than four years. Most applications take as little as six to eight months, immigration authorities say.
Malik’s petition has been denied more than once. Amy’s petition on Malik’s behalf has been pending for four years.
The Ahmads want to know why.
“We never give up hope everything is going to work,” Amy said. “But it’s been difficult.”
Malik is allowed to cross state lines, hold a job, drive a car, pray at mosque, attend Mass. But without the status of permanent residency, he isn’t sure how long his life with Amy, in America, will last.
“They just want to live their lives,” said friend and advocate Cathrine Soto. “To live freely.”
Conrad Zaragoza, with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the branch of the Department of Homeland Security that processes immigrant benefit requests, said his office is now reviewing the Ahmad case.
“It is very unique,” Zaragoza said.
In 2003, immigration services n- formerly handled by the now defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services n- were reorganized under the Department of Homeland Security.
Burden of proof
Typically, permanent residency is not hard to get if you are a relative of a United States citizen, said Miryam Antunez de Mayolo, immigration attorney in Cedar Falls. Even for those with close ties to American citizens, lingering too long in the United States is not an unforgivable sin. Immigration authorities have the discretion to be forgiving.
Antunez de Mayolo does not know the Ahmads or their case. Four years seems like a long time but without knowing details, it’s hard to say, she said.
That Malik and Amy married so quickly n- within three months of their meeting n- may have caused immigration officials to take note, she said.
Matrimonial fraud is not unheard of in the Cedar Valley. Last year, Muhammad “Mike” Anwar, 38, was sentenced to six months in a federal prison for charges of conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and aiding and abetting the commission of a fraudulent marriage. He offered American women money if they would marry people in Pakistan.
“Fraud we consider to be a security issue,” said Tim Counts, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a department of Homeland Security.
Short story made long
When Malik, a Muslim from South Asia, and Amy, a Caucasian Catholic from small-town Iowa, wed they expected their interracial relationship would come with challenges. But the couple, optimistic, idealistic and accepting, was not discouraged.
“We knew what we were up against,” Amy said.
As anticipated, some frowned at the sight of a tall, dark man walking hand in hand with a short, blond woman who sometimes wears head coverings.
But the couple did not anticipate “for better or for worse” would mean years of investigations and inquiries, letters and lawyers, expenses and allegations, tears and threats of deportation.
Malik, a senior technician, arrived in the New York in February 2001 on a three-month business visa from the United Arab Emirates. According to a letter from his former employer, Malik was to check out the sale of air conditioning-related parts and machinery. But his relationship with his boss soured after apparent confusion over a failed business transaction, Malik said.
Malik says he moved to Iowa to be near an acquaintance while he weighed his options. He would later ask and receive permission to extend his stay in the United States by three months.
He moved to the Midwest that March, met Amy, a student at Hawkeye Community College, in April and fell in love around May. By early June the couple was engaged and on July 6 Amy and Malik visited the justice of the peace.
Six days later, Malik was apprehended at his Waterloo apartment by immigration officials and taken to a Cedar Rapids detainment center. An arrest warrant states Malik was apprehended for violation of immigration laws.
According to a document signed by an immigration agent, an anonymous caller suggested Malik had shopped around for a bride in an effort to get a green card. The tipster also claimed Malik had married a “mentally challenged” individual. The document also questioned Malik’s employment and the status of his previous marriage, but these two inquiries were not attributed to the caller.
Malik was detained for two weeks and released on a $20,000 bond and placed in deportation proceedings. In 2003, a year and a half after the arrest, a judge terminated removal proceedings. This meant the attention was back on the Ahmads’ requests for permanent residency. Malik’s request was later denied on the grounds of fraud, immigration officials said n- questioning the change in his employment status. That’s ridiculous, Malik says, adding his former employer’s letter backs his explanation.
But Malik, who believes he did nothing wrong, says the experience threatened his reputation. Nothing can erase the shame of being taken to a hospital for a checkup as a detainee, ankles bound.
“The one thing I have is my pride,” Malik said. “I don’t do anything to bring shame on my family.”
“They treat him like a criminal, which he is not,” Amy said.
Amy is deeply offended by the challenge to her competency. She defends her marriage as a union of love and free will.
“I proposed,” she said.
Malik says he is hurt that some believe he married Amy for anything other than affection. Amy’s family, including her mother, have written glowing reports to immigration authorities on Malik’s behalf.
“She’s so important to me. She really makes me proud for every single thing,” Malik said. “I had a dream for a life partner like her.”
As the sole breadwinner for the household, Amy says she works more than 60 hours a week setting up telephone service accounts for a Waterloo company.
Amy has also advocated for her husband, firing off complaint letters and e-mails to attorneys and high-ranking Homeland Security officials.
Amy’s passion is one reason the couple’s attorney since 2004, Ty Twibell of North Kansas City, Mo., felt the case had merit and decided to take on their struggles pro bono. The Ahmad case was referred to Twibell by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C.
Malik, denied work authorization for a period of two years due to immigration proceedings, was granted permission this spring to earn an income. He says he is pursuing job leads. He says he wants to work.
He also knows actions speak louder than words. So he is a servant.
Malik cooks for Amy, does yard work for strangers, volunteers for a hospital.
He has also been a familiar and trusted face at the Hawkeye Chapter of the American Red Cross for the last couple years. Last year, Malik spent three months down south helping hurricane victims and assisted this year, too. Malik, whose responsibilities include driving the emergency response vehicle and traveling on regional business, was featured as an outstanding volunteer in a Red Cross press release. In October he was awarded a congressional certificate signed by U.S. Rep Jim Nussle.
That’s quite a bit of dedication for a noncitizen to muster, Red Cross officials say.
Leo Hoffman, captain of the Red Cross disaster response team, supervises Malik.
“He’s one of the best volunteers we have,” Hoffman said. “Passionate and all. He wants to help people.”
Ironically, if Malik could have one wish, it would be to leave tomorrow for Pakistan n- provided he could return to Iowa. Malik, the eldest son in the family, hasn’t seen his aging parents for five years. He wants to introduce his wife to his family. His mother has been in and out of a coma.
On Friday, the Ahmads’ computer was logged on to a report on the earthquake aftermath in Pakistan. Malik has not been able to communicate with his family since the disaster, but a friend tells him extended family were killed.
That evening the Red Cross called. There has been a fire at Hillcrest Park Apartments in Cedar Falls, dozens forced from their homes. Malik dons his Red Cross vest, apologizes for a hasty exit, and leaves for the scene of the fire.
Part of the process
Malik and Amy maintain they did nothing to warrant such scrutiny by the federal government. They find the process excessive, a never-ending cycle of submitting and resubmitting documents again and again.
But a spokesman for a Homeland Security department said Malik made at least one misstep. Counts, the spokesman for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Minnesota, said Malik was “out of status” for about two weeks and filed late for an extended stay in 2001.
A document from what was then the office of Immigration and Naturalization Service shows Malik’s request was filed on June 9, 2001. The agency did eventually extend Malik’s status, retroactively making his presence legal through Aug. 31, 2001, but this was after his arrest, according to Counts. That approval was issued Aug. 28, 2001.
“We target violations of law. We don’t target people for any other reason,” Counts said.
Malik disagrees with the document, says he filed on time, but the INS didn’t file it in a timely fashion.
Attorney Twibell says the disputed filing date is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the Ahmads, they say, have spend thousands of dollars on attorneys and paperwork.
Generally, when cases that take longer than expected to process, it is for a reason, Zaragoza said. “We don’t put every case through an unnecessary scrutiny, but we will remove cases from normal process that requires it,” he said. “An individual who normally doesn’t receive a benefit when he applied automatically will assume you are not processing an application in a timely manner.”
The process isn’t perfect. Immigration officials admit they are working to reduce a backlog of applications.
Counts said a person’s country-of-origin is not a factor in processing their application. He said some Americans are under the impression that after Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, immigration laws regarding residency changed and turned into a complicated circus.
He disagreed. “Specifically, what law is different?”
National security is emphasized now as a top priority, he said.
Watchdog agencies have cropped up to make sure people aren’t lost in the paperwork or treated differently because of their race or nationality. The government is checking itself, too. In 2002, the position of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman was created in Homeland Security to help resolve individual and employer problems with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Despite efforts to create a clear process for applying for residency and citizenship, the paperwork, perceptions and reports of discrimination are daunting, some immigration attorneys say.
Antunez de Mayolo says immigrants are often intimidated by the process.
“The law is drafted in a way so it is biased against immigrants,” Antunez de Mayolo said. “It’s really hard. It’s hard to come up with arguments. It’s an uphill battle. The playing field is not even.
“Things completely illegal in criminal proceedings are everyday occurrences in immigration proceedings. The way they are (sometimes) arrested. The way they are handled.”
Soto and the Ahmads petitioned government officials with Iowa connections but ran into dead ends.
Dustin Vande Hoef, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, said the senator wants to help aliens having troubles with the immigration process. But when the courts become involved or charges are levied, the senator can’t get involved.