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Bookshelf: Arrested Mothering

Habibeh Syed recalls the true life account of her mother’s arrest in the US.

My mother landed in America in 1989. What she thought were her real travel documents security told her were counterfeit. . . My five-month-old self was nestled in her arms when the San Francisco airport security stopped her. The shock, the waiting, the fees and the fear are all things I thank God for not remembering.




On a spring morning in 2010, I received a terrifying phone call. It was early. My brother was on the line. His voice was shaky. They took mom.



Ever since then, I dread picking up my phone before 7 am. It was a bright and sunny morning until I heard him say that. He had woken me up after a long night of nausea and heartburn. Pregnant women deal with a lot of discomforts no one warned me about. Motherhood has its price.



My mother is in her forties. Her six children and my daughter are her life. She gets by with her limited English but I wouldn’t depend on her for synonyms. She uses grape and crepe interchangeably to describe the fruit. She laughs a lot and cooks a lot. You want food, good food? You come right over. Afghans are known for their hospitality. Anyone is welcome, as long as you come in peace.



They barged in that morning with guns and terror, my mom recalls. They shouted at my brother and threatened my father as they searched the house. My youngest sister was getting ready for school just as they took my mom away in cuffs. We call my sister a drama queen, but this was one dramatic moment she may never forget. They had quickly asked for my mom, who wasn’t even dressed yet. My dad requested that a woman officer stand in the room to watch her do that. They were worried she might escape through the second floor window. The thought of my mom climbing out of a 2nd floor apartment to escape Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) makes me laugh now.



I choked back tears as I stood there. Confusion, regret, irritation filled me. Why were they there? Why hadn’t we done anything about my mother’s immigration case until now? How dare they just tear apart a family? My family. I hung up the phone call with my brother and started making calls. It was all I could do. I was 190 miles away in my Long Island home and dealing with severe morning sickness. My lawyer immediately responded to his cell phone. “You are not obligated to answer any questions,” he told me. “I’m on my way. I will answer all and any questions they may have for me,” my anguish spoke.



ICE had taken my mom to their Wilmington facility in Delaware and decided to question her about a mysterious phone call that was placed from our home in Newark years ago. The number that was reached apparently belonged to a terrorist (group or individual, they wouldn’t tell us) and our family had ties to him or her, or so they told my mom.  Fourteen hours of interrogation later, they realised she really was clueless and let her go. I question their honesty to this day.



My childhood was a good one. Until I turned 12 in 2001. Then the humiliation, the bullying, the “Osama lives in your basement!” comments came along with threats. I spent the majority of my childhood in New York City with a few summers in California here and there. We moved around a lot in the heart of Queens but always stayed within its borders. New York City post-9/11 was not the place to be for my family. Not the place to be for any Muslims, Afghans especially. If you took a strainer and strained out all the hated people in America at the time, we wouldn’t make it between the tiny holes. Our identity was just too big of a deal to let pass. So my dad decided to move to Delaware. And in 2003 we did just that.




After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 80s, my grandparents, like everyone else, fled to other countries in search of a better life or, more accurately, to survive. They lived in the neighbouring country of Pakistan for a few years and slowly made their way to America. My father’s parents settled in California and my mother’s parents settled in New York. They get along all right.




My mother landed in America in 1989. What she thought were her real travel documents security told her were counterfeit. She got through Pakistan’s security but the United States had their technology up to date. My father had been looking for a reliable lawyer in Pakistan for a year and though he thought he’d finally found one, he hadn’t. Exactly how my mother got on an aeroplane with false documentation that a scam artist had prepared for her that my father had paid thousands of dollars for is still a mystery to me. It gets better. My five-month-old self was nestled in her arms when the San Francisco airport security stopped her. The shock, the waiting, the fees and the fear are all things I thank God for not remembering. Find a lawyer they told my dad. He was 22, broke and taking ESL classes at the time.




My mother served time for entering the country without documentation: in other words, being an illegal alien. After a month of staying in a facility with me they let her go and told my dad that he had to find a lawyer for the both of us. America The Great they say, land of the free, home of the brave. “Everyone wants to come and live in our country and take over our land and consume our resources and use all the benefits”… say the original Americans.



As our family got bigger, money got tighter. Important things like our lawyers’ fees were put at the end of the list after rent and bills were paid. Since my mother was not authorised to work, the only money we had came from my father’s paycheck. Post-9/11, immigration lawyers profited from illegal immigrant cases more than ever, with a typical closing deal of up to $10,000 depending on the disruption of the case. It was not guaranteed to end with a green card however. It all depended on the final interview with an immigration officer. A single I-485 form that will register you for permanent residence will cost you $1070 today.



My mom can’t get her driving license. She can’t travel out of the country. She can’t get a job, buy a house or even buy a car. She can’t open a bank account. She can’t get a credit card or even a library card. Illegal immigrants are restricted to very little access to very basic necessities in the community. After 23 years in the US, she is still unable to do those things. How she raised six children is beyond me. I received my green card through my husband and am in the process of getting her the proper documentation so she can move forward in this extensive, expensive process of becoming a citizen. The funny part is my mother is bothered very little by this. Her life is limited in so many ways and all she wants to do is cook and welcome you to her home. That is my mother.



Habibeh Syed is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Newark, Delaware. She graduated from the University of Delaware with a BA in English and minor in journalism. She is particularly interested in environmental studies and social injustice. She is happily married with a 3 year old daughter and loves to cook and sew in her free time.





Bookshelf: Secrets Under the Olive Tree