START WITH THE EYES. Big and round, dotted with caramel-colored irises and prone to bugging out, they’re the first thing you notice about Zahid Chaudhry—assuming you can see them. ¶ Most days he hides those eyes behind inky-black shades so massive that they cover his cheekbones, because without them, even sitting in his dimly lit home in Lacey can trigger an unbearable skull-hammering migraine. But on a gray Friday morning in February he was willing to take them off and risk the pain because he wanted to see me. He leaned forward over the coffee table in his living room, head tilted to the side ever so slightly, eyes narrowed, his spidery right index finger raised like an exclamation mark. “And because I want you to see me—as a human,” he said, almost whispering.
It was an odd statement. Who would doubt that he’s human? Start to unpack it, though, and it makes more sense. For one thing, he was likely referring to the loss of humanity he’s endured lately: See, those migraines, which he says are the result of a brain injury he suffered while serving in the U.S. military, often make him a prisoner of his head. When they don’t he’s confined to a wheelchair by crippling back injuries he says he also sustained in the service, and he takes dozens of prescription medications to manage the pain. But what he was also implying when he said “as a human” was not a criminal. Because this summer the Department of Homeland Security may finally succeed in its four-year-long effort to deport the native of Pakistan for engaging in what one federal judge called a “disturbing pattern of deceit.”
“What is a country without people?” Chaudhry asked without prompting. “I would not like to go into a garden where there is only one kind of flower. I would like to go into a garden where there are all sorts of flowers. Same with a country and its people.
“Why we are so strong and so wonderful is nothing to do with our scientific promise or anything else. It is that we have so many wonderful people who have lived in so many different places. That’s what makes a country strong: we the people coming from all over.”
The U.S. immigration system is, not surprisingly, a hot-button topic in Chaudhry’s house, one that often launches him into rapturous, earnest soliloquies like this one. When he begins speaking his voice is soft, every consonant sharpened by his precise accent, and his eyes are all but hidden behind heavy lids that hang like half-drawn shades. As momentum takes over and gives force to his voice, though, his lids begin to rise, exposing more and more of the whites of his eyes. And it’s his gaze—focused and clear, disarming in its complete lack of guile—that really sells his claims of victimization and persecution. It locks in on you, and it gets hard to concentrate on anything else, and his voice fades away, and the only question that seems to matter anymore is this:
Are these the eyes of a liar?
If Chaudhry has something to hide, he doesn’t act like it. His friends have established two websites, keepzahidhome.org and justice4chaudhry.info, to rally supporters to his cause. And since 2009 he’s told his story several times, to newspapers, radio stations, blogs, and raucous crowds of activists: He’s a decorated military veteran—a disabled one—who’s been unfairly pitched into the meat grinder that is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “As you can see for yourself, I truly have given my heart and my body for America,” he told attendees at an immigration forum in Washington, DC, in September 2010. He wore his dark green military uniform and sat in his wheelchair. “It is hard for me to understand how a country I love and respect so much has not shown me the same respect.”
By his side for every interview and at every public appearance is his wife, Ann. A no-nonsense woman from rural Yakima, she’s tall and broad shouldered. She’s also 18 years older than Zahid. And when she stands next to her seated husband, she cuts an imposing figure, like a mother bear protecting her cub. Pictures from early in the couple’s relationship show her smiling giddily, soft blonde hair framing her face. That hair is graying now, often tied up hastily in a bun. And her eyes, dark and pinched, well up easily when she discusses her husband’s efforts to remain in the country. “We know lots of people caught in the immigration system who have just left,” she says, her voice catching. “They’ve gotten tired of being harassed. They’ve gotten tired of being discriminated against.” She pauses to compose herself. “But we have to stay here to fight.”
Zahid will be the first to admit that they make an odd pair. When he met Ann Mackenzie late in 2000, not long after he arrived in the country, she was a 45-year-old widow with two children and an accounting job she hated, and she had never left the state. He was 27 years old, still drifting six years after graduating from college, and a wannabe world traveler. He’d landed in Yakima, partly because why not? and partly because his uncle Raza Choudary was a mathematics professor at Central Washington University in nearby Ellensburg. She loved Zahid’s accent; he admired the strength she’d shown by raising her kids on her own. In January 2001, just months after they started dating, they exchanged vows in a courthouse ceremony.
Money was an issue for the Chaudhrys almost from the beginning. Ann lost her job a week before the wedding, and Zahid, with degrees in mathematics and physics, struggled to find a job in the sleepy agricultural community. So instead he threw himself into service work. Early in 2001 he joined the Yakima Fire Department as a reserve firefighter. When he wasn’t at the firehouse he volunteered in the local Red Cross’s youth program. Then in March 2001 he enlisted in the Washington Army National Guard.
Why would someone spend that much time working for little to no money when he hadn’t even had a chance to get his own finances in order? “Whatever we spend on ourselves, that’s not ours. Whatever we give away to charity, whatever time we volunteer”—he looked up, toward a wooden beam bisecting the living room ceiling in his home; on it were the signatures of more than 250 friends, neighbors, and well-wishers—“_that_ is what we really get to keep, because that’s with us forever.”
It was a made-for-TV moment, as schmaltzy in person as it reads on paper. But people who know Chaudhry swear he’s for real. “He’s trying to be a super-American,” says Chester Ferguson, one of his friends. “He does twice as much for the country as any of us who were born here do.” Ferguson met Chaudhry in summer 2001, at a flea market in Packwood, halfway between Yakima and Olympia. He was selling honey, and Chaudhry began peppering him with questions about bees and beekeeping. As the conversation progressed they discovered they lived minutes from each other and Chaudhry invited him over for dinner. Ferguson declined. He’s an introvert and, by his own admission, more than a little xenophobic; the influx of Hispanics in the Yakima Valley over the last few decades has made him leery of outsiders.
Chaudhry was relentless, though, reextending the dinner invitation whenever they ran into each other in town. Ferguson finally accepted—because he thought it was rude to keep saying no. And when he did he began to reassess his own prejudices. The two grew so close that in January 2006, when Ferguson was reeling emotionally from a falling out with his daughter, he joined Chaudhry on a trip to Pakistan to get away. “I don’t have a big group of friends,” Ferguson says. “But he was always there to support me, to give me somebody to talk to.”
In fact, talking through others’ problems is one of Chaudhry’s greatest skills, according to those who know him. In 2003 he interned as a vocational counselor, learning to help people who were injured on the job get back to work. “Zahid was good at it because he’s friendly,” says Trevor Duncan, who supervised Chaudhry. “He’s very outgoing. He’s very easy to talk to. I’m at a different company now, but if I had the ability and if he was interested, I would talk to him tomorrow about coming to work for us.”
In mid-2008, more than four years after applying for naturalization—twice as long as applicants typically wait—Chaudhry hadn’t heard anything from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Frustrated, he filed a federal lawsuit to compel the agency to review his case. And on August 25, 2008, he received a letter informing him that his bid to become a U.S. citizen had been denied. The Department of Homeland Security began deportation proceedings not long after that. Today Chaudhry seems more upset by the delay than the actual decision. But the community responded to the news by throwing itself in front of him like a human shield. He and Ann moved to Lacey in 2009 and paid for their new home outright with money donated by family and friends. And more than 40 of his most ardent supporters—friends, employers, college professors, fellow vets, even a former adjudicator for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—have submitted letters to the Department of Homeland Security, insisting that Chaudhry be granted citizenship. They write about his service in the National Guard, his willingness to help neighbors with computer problems, his gifts of fresh fruit and vegetables from his garden to those in need. “If that isn’t enough, what does it take to be a citizen of the United States?” reads one letter. And another: “Deporting Zahid would be a travesty.”