After every two words, Syeda Asma Akter has to take a small breath. It’s been like this since her surgery last year for her thyroid cancer, so it’s usually her husband who helps her communicate with the world.
“My husband takes care of me with everything – we have to go all the way to Manhattan for my treatment and he takes me there,” she says.
But all that may change soon. On Monday, two weeks before her scheduled follow-up surgery, her husband Riaz Talukder is expected to show up to 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan with a passport and a one-way ticket to his native Bangladesh.
Riaz has two U.S. citizen children, has paid taxes for decades, has no criminal background. Despite that, he faces deportation under the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, including those without criminal records.
If her husband is sent back, Syeda will be left here alone with two young sons.
“My wife is going through a lot,” Talukdar says, breaking down in front of a room full of organizers who have gathered in Jackson Heights, Queens to discuss his case. “She walks around the house from room to room, talking to herself at night. She can’t sleep. She can’t do anything if I am gone.”
Riaz, 50, came to the U.S. as a minor through the Bahamas in 1981. He was undocumented and made his living through odd jobs like working at newsstands. With the 1986 introduction of Catholic Social Services (CSS) and Lulac legalization, which allowed work permit to those who came into the U.S. illegally before 1982, Riaz gained a work permit in 1991 and began legally working in the country. He was even able to leave the U.S. to visit his family in Bangladesh and marry Syeda.
But in 1998 while he was visiting Bangladesh the second time, Riaz says his work permit was cancelled. Riaz says that during his visit, his wife’s stepbrothers – members of an Islamist extremist group in Bangladesh – threatened him and tried to beat him up. After going into hiding for a few weeks, he returned to the U.S.
That’s when he was detained at JFK International Airport and held for a few weeks, before he was released when his lawyer applied for asylum on grounds of political threat in Bangladesh.
Riaz claims he was unaware that his asylum application was later denied and a deportation order had been filed against him in 2002.
“My lawyer never mentioned this to me,” he says.
Meanwhile, he had two children – both U.S. citizens – and set up a home here. He managed to renew employment authorization under the Legal Immigration and Family Equity (LIFE) legalization, that allowed work permit to individuals who were earlier under the CSS Lulac program.
In 2008, his LIFE authorization expired and two years later, he was detained by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rafi, his eldest son, was eight years old when, during the early hours of one summer morning in 2010, he opened the door to the ICE agents.
“I heard a ring at the door and I thought it was peculiar because it was so early in the morning, so I went to check it out,” Rafi recalls, picking the threads of his ripped jeans.
“I always thought that it was my fault because if I hadn’t opened the door it could’ve gone a better way,” he says.
Riaz’s lawyer applied for asylum again and Riaz was released, this time with the requirement that he check in with ICE once a year.
Increased check-ins with ICE have accompanied a blitz of detentions of undocumented immigrants during the Trump administration. Trump’s first 100 days in office saw more than 41,000 arrests, a 37.6 percent higher than the same period last year—and the greatest increase of those arrested were people without criminal backgrounds.
Earlier this year, the frequency of Riaz’s check-in changed from annual to every three months and then to once a month. That’s when Riaz applied for his asylum case to be re-opened on the grounds that his wife was sick and needs his support. It was denied because of lack of documents, he said.
Last week, Riaz ’s lawyer applied for his motion to be re-opened which, if approved, will give him the chance to reapply for his asylum case. Riaz ’s family is hopeful that because his application is pending, he might get to stay – but even in that case, they are fearful that he will be asked to return in a month to face deportation all over again.
Last month, when Riaz went for his check-in, Rafi spent the entire day in dread – so much so that he had switched his phone off.
“I didn't want to ask him if there was good news or bad news,” he recalls. “I didn't want to call him and wait for it to ring and get all types of suspicion.”
“I don't think they should be faulted for being here,” Rafi says of his parents. “If they already established and settled a life here – I don't think [the government] should try to break [us] apart.”
Numerous Bangladeshi families like Rafi’s in New York have been broken apart, according to Kazi Fouzia of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM). She says at least 400 Bangladeshis in the area have been deported in the past year.
Representatives from DRUM and the Century Coalition and the Immigrants Solidarity Network plan to demonstrate outside the federal building on Monday when Talukdar goes in for his check-in.
Riaz says it’s people like them who make America feel like home.
“In this country, sometimes there are policies that may hurt someone like me, but the people never do. The people, the place – it's my home. I don’t know any other place to call home, and neither does my family.”
Update, 11/20/17: Riaz was asked to return with documentation showing he is a Bangladeshi national. Meanwhile, the appeal to re-open his case can be approved in the next three months. If and when that happens, he can fight for his right to stay in the county on humanitarian grounds.