As an intensive care unit nurse, Urooj Alavi said she has witnessed the tributes local communities have made to honor her and other health care workers leading the charge against the novel coronavirus.
But Alavi said she does not want more parades, fly-overs or signs. She wants the U.S. government to release her husband from immigration detention and allow him to stay in the U.S. with their children.
“Let me keep my family together,” Alavi, a U.S. citizen and resident of Anaheim, California, told CBS News. “Halt his deportation.”
“That will help one of the nurses here,” she added. “That will be part of honoring the workforce in this country.”
Alavi’s husband, Amir Ali, 47, has been fighting to stay in the U.S. for more than 15 years, facing four different periods of immigration detention. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had failed to acquire the necessary travel documents to deport him to Pakistan — until now.
Ali, who does not have a criminal record, was recently transferred to an ICE detention facility in southern Arizona to await his deportation, which he was told is imminent. He has told his wife he tested positive for COVID-19 — a diagnosis ICE said it could not confirm without a privacy waiver.
ICE has reported more than 6,500 COVID-19 cases — including nearly 800 active ones — among immigrants in its custody. At least eight immigrants have died of coronavirus complications while in the agency’s custody. Others have been hospitalized after being infected, but ICE has not disclosed that tally.
Urooj Alavi poses for a photo with her toddler, Abbas, 1, and Orlando, 6. / Credit: Wey Wang / ACLU
In an interview with CBS News, Ali, a cancer survivor with a history of asthma, said he has been experiencing fever, body ache, diarrhea and loss of taste and smell in the past days. But Ali noted he’s not only worried about his health, saying his deportation to Pakistan would devastate his U.S.-based family, which includes his wife and their two children, a 6-year-old boy and a toddler born last year.
“It would shatter our family,” Ali said during a phone call from the Florence ICE Service Processing Center.
Ali said he fears for his children’s psychological well-being and his wife’s health. “During the first two weeks, the 1-year-old boy was having a hard time sleeping at night. Every time I called him, he would keep repeating, ‘baba, baba.'”
“My wife works in a COVID ICU and she is dealing with anywhere from 10 to 12 patients every day that she goes to work. So her concern is we don’t have a support system. If she gets sick, what will happen to our kids?” Ali asked.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed an emergency “stay of removal” request with ICE urging the agency to allow Ali to remain in the U.S. with his family. The office of California senator and Democratic nominee for vice president, Kamala Harris, has also intervened after Alavi sought its help.
Ali was first arrested by ICE in October 2004. He had been stripped of his conditional U.S. permanent residency after an allegation of marriage fraud that Ali denies. In 2005, an immigration judge did not sustain the marriage fraud violation but ordered Ali deported on the basis that his U.S. legal status had been revoked.
The Pakistani immigrant turned to the Board of Immigration Appeals and the 5th Circuit Court Appeals, but his requests were denied and he remained in ICE detention until November 2006. Ali said he spent his first stint in detention helping fellow detainees file asylum applications and habeas corpus petitions.
Ali was again taken into ICE custody 20 days after being released during a mandatory check-in with the agency. But he was released again in May 2007 after ICE failed to acquire the necessary travel documents from Pakistani authorities to deport him. Ali had also filed a habeas corpus petition claiming unlawful detention.
After four years outside of detention, Ali was re-arrested by ICE during another check-in in July 2011. The agency said in a notice that it had verified Ali’s Pakistani citizenship and determined there was a “significant likelihood” it could deport him this time. Ali filed another habeas corpus petition and was released within six months after ICE again found itself unable to deport him.
Pakistan is currently one of 10 countries ICE considers “recalcitrant” because they don’t fully cooperate with the repatriation of their nationals. The Zadvydas v. Davis Supreme Court decision in 2001 generally requires ICE to release immigrants from civil immigration detention after six months if there is no “significant likelihood of removal in the reasonably foreseeable future.”
After the end of his third detention period, Ali continued to check-in with ICE for the next eight years. During that time, he met Alavi and the two married in New York in July 2018. They moved to California with Orlando, the 6-year-old, and their son Abbas was born in May 2019.
During a routine check-in with ICE this July, Ali was again taken into custody and held at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, home to the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. immigration detention system, before being transferred to the Arizona facility where he currently finds himself in.
“After exhausting all legal due process, Ali is in ICE custody awaiting final removal,” ICE said in a statement.
Alavi said she is concerned about her husband’s health, pointing to the number of coronavirus cases among ICE detainees. “I work in the COVID ICU, so I know how sick they are,” she said. “It’s terrible to see them and now, knowing that I cannot do anything for my husband, is just overwhelming.”
Throughout the pandemic, ICE has defended its strategy to curb the spread of the coronavirus inside its detention system, which is currently holding 20,000 immigrants. It has highlighted efforts to test immigrants, screen new detainees and isolate those exposed to the virus, while also noting that its detention population has plummeted since March.
Last week, however, Judge Jesus Bernal of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles said ICE’s compliance with court-mandated requirements to protect vulnerable detainees from COVID-19 has been “weak” and “spotty.” He also criticized ICE for not releasing more detainees whose age and medical conditions place them at a higher risk of severe illness or death if they contract COVID-19.
Bernal said ICE “released” 1,909 vulnerable detainees, but continued to detain more than 3,800. Among those counted as “released,” were 769 immigrants who were deported, 74 who were granted relief from deportation and three who died.
Ali said ICE should take into account his family ties, clean record and different periods of detention and allow him to stay in the U.S. so he can reopen his immigration case and seek to legalize his status through his marriage with Alavi. “They should exercise favorable discretion on people like us,” he said.
Alavi said she’s being stretched out thin, emotionally and physically, finding it difficult to care for Abbas and Orlando alone, while continuing her demanding shifts in the hospital. If Ali is deported, Alavi said she doesn’t know what she will do, noting that Orlando does not have a passport to travel out of the country.
In a text message, Alavi made a direct plea to ICE: “Do not tear us apart.”
“During these challenging times, it is very important for families to be together,” Alavi wrote. “ICE can honor a first responder who is a law-abiding U.S. citizen and release Amir.”
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