Mohammad Sarfaraz Hussain was supposed to come out in "three minutes" from a quick check-in with a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official after arriving at the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston, TX on the evening of July 3. Or at least, that's what the official told his sister Shahla Shahnawaz.
Instead, Hussain, a 23-year-old Pakistani immigrant with a valid student visa, was arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and is now in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement, also known as ICE. Shahnawaz, 27, thinks her little brother was detained without cause.
"They were pushing my brother so he would say anything that would make him deportable," she said. "He has no criminal record and he didn't do anything wrong."
Hussain was born in Pakistan and grew up in Bahrain, the youngest of four siblings. When he turned 18 in 2013, he applied for a student visa and moved to the U.S. Shahnawaz said that her brother, who has learning disabilities, had originally been studying computer science at Austin Community College in Texas. But last October, she lost her job and was unable to support him, so Hussain deferred the semester because of financial hardship after consulting with the school and the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS). He then transferred to Houston Community College.
Hussain's five-year student visa was set to expire on July 8. His immigration attorney and a school counselor told him he needed to leave the U.S. and re-enter the country in order to complete the process of extending his student visa. Following this advice and armed with his valid visa and an I-20 form, which proved Hussain was legally enrolled in school, last week the siblings traveled to Cancun, Mexico for a day.
"He was a bit afraid," she said, "but I told him, 'Don't worry. I'm with you and I'm U.S. national. You have done nothing wrong and you're a student, so what could happen?'"
Turns out, the end of the trip would become their worst nightmare. Hussain was interviewed by airport officials for four hours before being arrested by CBP and put in immediate removal proceedings. But because he said he was afraid of being sent to Pakistan, he was transferred to ICE custody.
Shahnawaz believes that her brother was coerced into a false confession and that his detention might had been racially motivated. She added that an officer by the last name of Forrester involved in the detention of Hussain taunted her as she waited that evening, saying her brother wouldn't step on to U.S. soil if it was up to him. "He had so much hatred," she said. "[He asked] 'Why are you here? Why is your family here? I'm going to come after them next." (Refinery29 wasn't able to independently confirm the official's identity with CBP or TSA.)
“On July 3, 2018, Mohammad Sarfaraz Hussain, 23, a citizen of Pakistan, attempted to enter the U.S. after a flight from Mexico with a valid U.S. non-immigrant student visa. However, during his entry attempt, he confirmed under oath that he never attended school, and that he was illegally working in the United States — both are violations of the terms of his nonimmigrant visa," the spokesperson said via email. "U.S. immigration authorities detained Hussain and placed him in expedited removal because he is inadmissible to the U.S. as an intended immigrant without possessing a valid immigrant visa. Hussain remains in ICE custody pending immigration proceedings.”
But Shahnawaz said that the agency is not telling the truth. "We have school records," she said. "How can they say he never went to school?"
She added that her brother never violated the terms of his visa by working and might have been coerced into telling immigration officials that he did. "God knows what kind of pressure he was under for four hours to say that under oath," she said. "The only thing he did was sometimes fix stuff for relatives or family friends, but that's not really working."
Claudia Valenzuela, detention project director at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said the advice the siblings got from their immigration attorney was flawed.
"It’s generally very risky to travel when your status is about to expire, including if you're a student," she said. "In our experience, student visas are very difficult to renew when you’re out of status, especially if you're detained."
It's now been a week since Hussain was detained. At first, Shahnawaz was not informed of where he was, so she spent Independence Day going from one detention facility to another across the Houston area trying to find him. He was able to call her at the end of the day and let her know where he was being held.
"He told me, 'I was transported today. I slept at a bench at Hobby Airport. Did I do something wrong?' I asked whether he had signed something," she said. "He said, 'Yes. They made me sign something and now I'm here. Can I come out?'"
Because of the process he's currently in, there's no way to post bond and have him return home while he awaits for his case to be resolved. And since he technically didn't step into U.S. soil, Hussain is not protected by the U.S. Constitution.
"Your rights are really diminished when you're seeking admission in the U.S. Once you're detained at an airport, which is a port of entry, you have very little rights and very little recourse," Valenzuela said. "There's no review of the decision to deny you entry to the U.S. on a visa. Essentially, the law creates some real hurdles on permitting the courts to have jurisdiction over these decisions. Your only recourse is if you express fear of returning to your country, that's the only way you can get before an immigration court."
That's what Hussain did. But as he waits, Shahnawaz said that she's mostly worried about his mental health, given the conditions within the for-profit detention center where he is being held and the whole ordeal he's going through.
"He said the conditions inside are very dire," she said. "Inside there are red, orange, and blue cells. Blue is mostly people who tried to cross the border illegally or that have no criminal record. Orange and red are people with criminal records. He was placed in the orange cell originally because the blue cells were so full."
She added: "There are students and people with green cards inside with him. People with disabilities. He keeps asking, 'Why am I being treated as a criminal? I didn't do anything.' I'm scared for his mental health and what toll being detained might have on him."
According to Valenzuela, many immigration detention centers have a long history of lacking adequate conditions.
"It doesn’t surprise me at all. We routinely get complaints by the folks we serve in detention," Valenzuela said, "It ranges from lack of adequate food to lack of adequate medical care to just the conditions of the facility itself. With stepped up immigration enforcement, we're hearing that facilities are overcrowded. It’s not out of ordinary that the conditions at the detention center would be extremely deficient."
Hussain's family is now expecting him to take his credible fear interview, which will determine whether he gets to stay in the U.S. pending an asylum case or he gets deported.
"Our religion teaches us to practice patience and be grateful no matter the hardship. But then reality hits and I realize I might get married or have a child and my brother might not be there to witness it because he might deported," Shahnawaz said, her voice breaking.
She added, "You come to the States because you want to live in a place [where everyone has] rights and freedom. But if you're afraid of your rights and your freedom being stripped away, is this really the right place for you anymore?"