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.”
When the Chaudhrys consulted the Seattle law firm Gibbs Houston Pauw in 2009, Ann was asked two questions: 1) Do you have a million dollars?, and 2) If not, can you move to Canada? She began to sob as she read the cards the attorney laid out for her. Zahid’s immigration status is remarkably complex (read: requiring many, many billable hours to untangle), and there’s no guarantee the firm can prevent the government from shipping him back to Pakistan. First there’s his deportation case in Seattle Immigration Court, which an attorney from Gibbs Houston Pauw eventually agreed to take on pro bono. At issue is a pair of criminal convictions he failed to disclose on his green card application. Should he prevail at his next hearing, scheduled for May 24, he’ll be able to file for a waiver stating that his removal from the country would create a hardship for his wife. If he secures the waiver, he’ll be able to reapply for a new green card. If he loses at the hearing in May, he’ll likely be deported.
Then, in an entirely separate case before the U.S. Court of Appeals, Chaudhry’s fighting the denial of his citizenship application. Should he lose that one, he’ll have to hope he isn’t deported and is allowed to remain in the country with a new green card. But if he wins, the deportation case will automatically be thrown out and he’ll become an American citizen. He’s arguing that case on his own; his attorney, who was again representing him pro bono, stepped aside when Chaudhry decided to appeal because the process was getting too costly.
Under normal circumstances a civilian in deportation proceedings may not apply for citizenship. There is one exception, for those who, like Chaudhry, have served honorably in the military. (It’s worth noting that lawful permanent residents, or non–U.S. citizens with green cards, may join the Armed Forces. More than 29,000 lawful permanent residents currently serve, and another 8,000 enlist every year.)
But in a cruel twist of jurisprudence—at least if you believe Chaudhry’s friends’ assessment of him—he was denied for a lack of “good moral character.” And to understand why the government thinks he’s a bad guy, you have to travel back 16 years and to a different continent.
Moving to the United States was never part of Chaudhry’s plan. He was a curious child who saved money to buy paperbacks on the history of the U.S. and the USSR. “I wanted to know what was outside,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a frog in the well.” The older he got, the more curious he got, and after graduating from the University of the Punjab, in Lahore, he decided to continue his studies outside of the country. In February 1994, five days before his 21st birthday, he landed in Australia on a student visa. He enrolled at the University of Wollongong, 50 miles south of Sydney, to study computer engineering, but struggled. And after just one semester, he dropped out. Rather than return to Pakistan, which would have been an admission of failure, he moved to Sydney and took a job as a taxi driver that paid less than $100 a week.
Fast-forward to March 1996, when a young Australian named Brad Hinsby flagged down Chaudhry’s cab. In every life there are otherwise insignificant decisions that create the potential for two wildly divergent paths. This was arguably the biggest small decision Chaudhry would ever make. He was off the clock and headed back to the station, but he pulled over and agreed to ferry Hinsby anyway because he insisted it would be a short trip. It wasn’t. Chaudhry says he drove an hour before Hinsby finally asked him to stop in front of a house on a quiet residential street. The meter had reached nearly $150, but Hinsby couldn’t pay it. He gave Chaudhry his passport as collateral so he could go inside and gather some cash but never returned and refused to answer his door. Chaudhry was hours late dropping off his cab at the station—not to mention short the $150 fare—and he says he was fired.
On March 22 he received a call from the City of Sydney Detectives Office asking him to come in. For weeks, he’d begged the local police to help him recover the lost fare. So when his phone rang, he allowed himself to believe the authorities were finally offering help—maybe they’d even found Hinsby. Instead, when Chaudhry arrived the detectives said they had reason to believe he’d tried to use the passport to apply for various forms of identification, including an Australian Medicare card. In one case there was security camera footage to back up their claim. Then they searched him and found an American Express card belonging to yet another individual. And when the police contacted the owner, they discovered it had been missing for more than a year. Another call, this one to AmEx, revealed that the card had been used 28 times between December 3, 1995, and March 20, 1996, for more than $850.
Chaudhry had an explanation for all of it. The ID cards that he’d applied for were for a friend, he told the detectives. And he couldn’t have made the charges on the credit card because he’d just found it in the back of his cab the previous day. In fact, he was on his way to American Express’s Sydney offices to return it. Really. The detectives, unconvinced, booked him on five fraud-related charges. He continued to deny that he’d committed the crimes, but one month later he pled guilty to two of them because, as he says now, he was coerced. He walked away with a small fine and—he says—the detectives’ assurances that the convictions wouldn’t appear on his record.
Chaudhry’s record in Australia isn’t the reason the Department of Homeland Security wants to send him back to Pakistan. Whether those convictions are egregious enough to prevent him from remaining in the country will be addressed if he ever gets a chance to apply for another green card. The problem is that he never disclosed them in the first place. He applied for U.S. tourist visas three times—in 1998, ’99, and 2000—and, after marrying Ann in 2001, his green card. Each application asked some variation of the same question: “Have you ever, in or outside the U.S., been arrested, cited, charged, indicted, fined or imprisoned for breaking or violating any law or ordinance, excluding traffic violations?” Each time he answered no, but he says now that he wasn’t trying to deceive anyone. He didn’t think about fessing up to his Australian convictions when he was filling out the paperwork because he was led to believe they didn’t constitute convictions in the first place. “They told me, ‘You have a crystal clear record,’” he says now of the Australian police. “So I took their word.”
From the perspective of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, though, his version of what happened in Australia is irrelevant; he did have a record and therefore answered the question incorrectly. End of story. And setting aside the legal ramifications of the omission, his explanation for not including the information about the incident is, at the very least, curious. Even if he genuinely thought he had a clean record, the application still asked if he’d ever been cited—and there’s no disputing that he was. Which raises a more important question: Did he not disclose his arrest because, as he says, he truly didn’t know it was worthy of disclosing, or because he worried what would happen if he did?
The Chaudhrys don’t own a TV. They sold theirs years ago at a garage sale after deciding they could no longer rely on broadcast news to report without bias. They spend their free time—when Ann isn’t researching immigration law or filing briefs on Zahid’s behalf—reading. Actually, she reads to him, books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which documents the country’s evolution from the perspective of those not in power. The Chaudhrys highly recommend it.
They don’t trust the government so much these days, for several reasons, these in particular: They say they were stopped at the U.S. border in 2003 on their way back from a vacation in Vancouver, then detained and questioned for hours. After 9/11 they began noticing unmarked government cars sitting outside their house in Yakima or trailing them through town. And Ann is convinced the feds bugged their phone. You’ll have to take their word for that stuff, but one incident from June 2001 is well documented. That’s when, not long after joining the National Guard, Zahid applied for an unpaid reserve position in the Yakima Police Department. He didn’t get the job and says he forgot about the whole thing—until he discovered that, in addition to its contention that he lied on his green card application, the Department of Homeland Security also believed he had lied to the police department by claiming to be a U.S. citizen. The conflicting accounts of what Chaudhry told the department about his immigration status are the subject of his deportation hearing in May.
One question on the application asked, “City of Yakima Civil Service Rules require some employees to be U.S. Citizens. Can you provide such documentation?” Chaudhry says he was confused by the wording and asked Yakima PD Lieutenant Gary Belles, who was at that time the head of the reserve program, for clarification but ultimately left it blank. Belles, now a 28-year veteran of the department, declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing nature of the case, but in a sworn deposition he said Chaudhry did answer the citizenship question, by placing a check mark in the “yes” box next to it. Yet Chaudhry marked every other box on the form with an X and in court documents a forensic expert says there are “indications that Mr. Chaudhry is not the writer of the check mark.”
Belles decided not to pursue Chaudhry for the job for several reasons, including the fact that he couldn’t verify much of his background. (For example: Chaudhry had claimed to one former employer that he once managed a Pizza Hut in Australia that made “millions of dollars.”) Yet October 11—one month to the day after 9/11—Belles scheduled an interview with Chaudhry anyway, ostensibly to give him a chance to clear up the discrepancies in his application. As far as Chaudhry knew he was still a legitimate candidate. In reality, though, the interview was conducted for another purpose entirely. Like a lot of Americans at that time, Belles was on high alert after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, and he’d delivered Chaudhry’s application to the FBI when he began to doubt the Pakistan native’s intentions. The purpose of the interview was not to determine if he’d make a good police officer but to ferret out any terrorist ties.
Chaudhry is typically calm when discussing his unsure future, more likely to roll his eyes and shake his head than bang his fist on a table. But his voice rises to a squeak and his eyes bulge wildly when he discusses Belles, a man who he says sees the world through “bloody colored glasses.” In our conversations he repeatedly cited claims of discrimination leveled against Belles in 2001 by a Hispanic former Yakima PD officer, Tony Ramos, as an example of the lieutenant’s alleged bias against minorities. (Ramos sued the city after he was fired in 1999 and later settled out of court.) And then there’s this: Chaudhry says that in 2009 Belles confided in a member of the local militia that he was out to get Zahid for attempting to “infiltrate” the police department. Court documents show that Belles doesn’t necessarily remember saying that, but if he did, he says he was actually baiting the militiaman, trying to gauge his opinion of Muslims. At any rate, the Chaudhrys moved to Lacey shortly thereafter—partly to be closer to Madigan Army Medical Center, but mainly to get away from what they believe was Belles’s decade-long campaign of intimidation. “I thought he had a fever, man,” Zahid says. “He had an axe to grind.”
Chaudhry blames Belles for all of his problems—not just the phone taps and car tails, but the deportation and denial of citizenship as well. He believes it’s all an anti-immigrant conspiracy that would never have blossomed had he not wanted a job with the Yakima PD. And those feelings of persecution (justified or not) have festered within Chaudhry for years now, to the point that he’s morphed from aggrieved victim of the system to a full-blown martyr. “Do whatever you want to me,” he said the first time we met, referring to the pending ruling on his deportation. “Hang me. So what. Jesus got a trial, right? He stood up for the people and today he lives in their hearts.” He reiterated the point in our second meeting, when speculating on what could happen if he’s sent back to Pakistan: “If I get shot dead because somebody wants to take a trophy of an American soldier, so be it. And not just any American soldier—a really honorable one.”
About his service. He often refers to it and the injuries he says he suffered while in the military as examples of his love for the U.S. But while it’s true that he was discharged honorably for medical reasons, the details of his health problems are murky at best. He was evasive when I asked about what caused his migraines, saying only that he fell and hit his head without offering any other details. The story of his back injury—he often says he broke it—is equally hard to parse. He says he hurt it in another fall in early 2004, which prevented him from shipping out to Iraq with the rest of his unit. But in a sworn deposition he told an attorney representing the government that he didn’t remember the specifics.
Chaudhry’s case is a gnarly tangle of half-truths, post-9/11 paranoia, and the absurdities of U.S. immigration. But broken down to its simplest terms it’s about the conflict between a meticulous application of the law and the willingness to offer second chances. Without question he omitted important facts about his criminal history from his green card application. And in these days of heightened awareness and homeland security and “threat-level assessments,” that’s an easy way to draw the wrong kind of attention. Heck, with his quickie marriage to a woman with whom he had little in common, his not-so-subtle attempts to ingratiate himself to the community, and his enlistment in the National Guard, Chaudhry even made some in Yakima wonder if he was just checking off items from a U.S. Citizenship in Three Easy Steps! how-to.
But those people in Yakima eventually came around. They saw the tender way Zahid and Ann looked at each other and the genuine joy he took from helping his neighbors fix their printers. They recognized that whatever his motivation, he not only joined the military, but he served for five years—and in most of their cases, that was more than they could say about themselves. “You can read it in his eyes,” says Chester Ferguson, Chaudhry’s friend from Yakima. “If he is faking, he’d have to be one hell of a good actor.” And that may be the strongest argument for cutting Chaudhry a break. For more than a decade he’s done almost everything he could to atone for his mistakes. At what point—if ever—can a man be forgiven his sins?
In a story rife with strange twists, the strangest one may be the way that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services discovered Chaudhry’s run-in with the law in Australia: He alerted them when he applied for citizenship in 2004. By then, he says, he’d had a chance to contact a court clerk overseas and confirm that he actually had a record. He maintained his innocence but could no longer deny that he’d been convicted of a crime. By reporting it, though, he was effectively admitting that he’d filled out his green card application incorrectly, thereby invalidating it.
In other words, had Chaudhry not applied for citizenship, he might not be facing deportation right now. When I asked if, knowing what he knows now, he would have forgone the naturalization process, he said no: “I will always act in good faith. I will act with the information that I have at that time and that I’ve been told or been made to believe.” It was our second meeting, and he was wearing the same fleece hoodie he’d worn the first time. Before he’d looked alert, even happy. He’d left the hood down, revealing his clean-shaven face. But this time the hood was up, casting a shadow on his cheeks, which were darkened by a day’s worth of stubble. He appeared weak and moved slowly, retreating deep into his jacket. His eyes looked puffy and tired, but they were just as focused and full of conviction as ever.
“It’s my destiny,” he said, peering out from within his hood. “Whatever happens.”
What may likely happen is that Zahid Chaudhry will be forced to leave the country. And in that case, he won’t be remembered for not doing enough to become an American, but for trying too hard.