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'Model citizen' at risk of deportation after signing post-9/11 list of Muslims, Arabs

A post-9/11 program that required thousands of Arab and Muslim men to register with the authorities, ended late last month but one "model citizen" is still caught up in its effects.
Mohammed G. Azam, a 26-year-old Bangladeshi native who faces deportation, at the South Street Seaport last week.
Mohammed G. Azam, a 26-year-old Bangladeshi native who faces deportation, at the South Street Seaport last week.Mashid Mohadjerin / The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

In the jittery months after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government created a program that required thousands of Arab and Muslim men to register with the authorities, in an effort to uncover terror links and immigration violations.

After complaints that the practice, known as special registration, amounted to racial profiling, the Homeland Security Department scaled back the program in 2003, and ended it late last month, saying it “no longer provides a unique security value.”

But for Mohammed G. Azam, a 26-year-old Bangladeshi native who came to the United States when he was 9, its legacy lives on. When he registered in Manhattan in 2003, officials began deportation proceedings, and now, eight years and numerous hearings later, his case has outlasted the program.

Mr. Azam is one of hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of people still caught in the program’s net, immigration experts say.

More than two dozen New York elected officials have rallied behind Mr. Azam, who came to this country as a child and overstayed his visa.

A soft-spoken man known to his friends as Johnny, Mr. Azam manages a Häagen Dazs store at the South Street Seaport and wants to open a Subway sandwich franchise. He graduated from Monroe College in the Bronx in 2009.

“I have big plans,” he said. “But I’m always scared that I’m going to be deported.”

The Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer, along with a host of state legislators, sent a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials last week praising Mr. Azam as “a model citizen” who should be allowed to stay indefinitely.

Judge throws out deportation
Most important, Mr. Azam has also gained the support of Gabriel C. Videla, an immigration judge who ruled in February that his deportation case be thrown out and that he be granted permanent resident status.

The immigration agency appealed that decision, just as it did in 2007 when another judge threw out the case because of violations committed by its agents. Agency officials declined to comment, a spokesman said.

The registration program uncovered little intelligence — 11 of the more than 85,000 men who came forward in the first year were found to have ties to terrorism — but it caught thousands of people who had been living in the country illegally, leading to a significant wave of deportations.

“It was a kind of knee-jerk targeting that took place in the wake of Sept. 11,” said Nancy Morawetz, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law, which represents Mr. Azam.

Mr. Azam came to the authorities’ attention by registering, as was required, but his case now hinges on unrelated questions about his age, and the cost of bureaucratic delay.

His father, Mohammed Hossain, applied for permanent resident status in 2001, when Mr. Azam was 16, through a program that allowed immigrants to pay a $1,000 fine and clear their records of visa-related violations.

Father allowed to stay
Because of an extensive backlog, Mr. Hossain was not approved until 2007, when his son was 22 — an adult in the eyes of immigration officials.

Mr. Hossain was able to sponsor his wife and daughter for permanent resident status, but Mr. Azam was denied because, immigration authorities contended, he was now too old to benefit from his father’s new status.

His lawyers called that argument unfair. “If they had processed this quickly, he would be a permanent resident today,” Ms. Morawetz said.

Judge Videla agreed, ruling in February that Mr. Azam should not be penalized for “the extraordinary administrative delays” that stalled his father’s application for so long.

The judge cited a 2002 law Congress passed to help keep families together; it allows relatives of visa applicants to retain their status as children, even if they are over 21 by the time their case is considered.

But immigration authorities said they would appeal that ruling, pressing forward with their effort to deport Mr. Azam.

Mr. Stringer, among others, is asking officials to drop the appeal. “He is what our country is all about,” he said of Mr. Azam. “For ICE people to dig in their heels, I think, is just outrageous.”

Mr. Azam has managed to stay sanguine, despite the grinding worry and the personal costs — the case will keep him from attending his sister’s wedding this summer in Bangladesh.

“One-third of my life has gone to this immigration process,” he said. “I grew up here. This is my country.”

This article, headlined "A Post-9/11 Registration Effort Ends, but Not Its Effects," first appeared in The New York Times.