Fear shakes immigrant enclave
By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The neon go-go girl still flashes near the deli where Mukeem Butt once worked. The streets are still studded with cash-for-gold joints. And an endless train of holiday gamblers and sunbathers continues to animate the Boardwalk.
But away from the hubbub of Atlantic City’s casino economy, there has been a quiet exodus. Al-Taqwah mosque does not bulge at the seams as it used to on Fridays. And behind the counters of the mom-and-pop stores lining the Boardwalk, the faces have changed.
The signs are subtle, as low-key as the illegal immigrants from Pakistan who occupied little-observed nooks here – and then scattered.
Mukeem Butt was among 5,000 Pakistanis nationwide to seek asylum in Canada after 9/11. Mainly, they fled New York. But New Jersey accounted for the second-largest number of refugees, nearly a thousand, according to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.
Many were terrified they would repeat the experiences of compatriots locked up on immigration charges after the terror attacks. Pakistanis accounted for about a third of the 762 illegal immigrants rounded up in the months after Sept. 11, more than any other group.
Little Pakistan in New York City, where two-thirds of the detainees were picked up, has withered, its shops boarded up and ghost apartments left behind. The exodus has left less of an imprint in Atlantic City, where there are fewer enclaves.
But for several Pakistani families who fled Atlantic City for Hamilton, Ontario, leaving has made all the difference.
Two tiny flags dominate the sparse living room of Mukeem Butt’s apartment overlooking Lake Ontario.
One bears the crescent moon insignia of Pakistan, the homeland Butt fled in fear. The other flag belongs to Canada, the country that has welcomed him as an asylum-seeker – and that is paying for the apartment, furniture if he wants it, and English classes.
“There are no problems,” Butt said in an interview in Hamilton. “Canada is the greatest country in the world.”
Butt, 38, was a midlevel civil servant in a Pakistani province where middle-class Shiite Muslims like himself were being targeted – with drive-by shootings, according to Amnesty International.
A hafiz – a title of honor for those who have memorized the Koran – Butt was beaten outside his mosque three times by thugs with guns and sticks.
He and his wife, Shagufta, entered the United States in early 2001 on short-term visitors’ visas. His brother-in-law hired him to oversee the night shift at a deli near Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino and immediately petitioned for a work permit on his behalf. Butt did not apply for asylum because he was told that the permit would make him a legal resident faster.
Two years later, it was still being processed. And Butt, lacking proper documents in a post-9/11 landscape, had a decision to make: Would he comply with the government’s new plan to track males 16 and older from two dozen mostly Islamic countries who were not U.S. citizens or green-card holders? Would he head for Canada as so many others had? Or would he stay and simply ignore the law?
He chose to follow the rules. In February, at a Cherry Hill immigration office, he was questioned for hours, fingerprinted – and then told he had four months to leave the country.
So on a Saturday in April, Butt and his wife climbed into a friend’s minivan as more than 100 people crowded the alleyway by their apartment to say farewell. Through tears, they tried to fix their attention on the seven-hour drive ahead and an uncertain future beyond.
“We were very scared,” said Butt, that Canada might deport them back to Pakistan.
Four months in his Canadian safe harbor have almost dulled that memory. The government
provided Butt with an attorney to plead his asylum case, health benefits, and, until he finds work, a housing allowance. He has applied for three factory jobs.
Asylum-seekers in the United States, by contrast, must wait six months to work, relying on charity in the meantime. Sometimes they end up in jail as their case winds through the courts.
In Hamilton, a steel city of half a million people, Butt has found old friends among the 50 Pakistani families relocated from the United States.
In the apartment above him are an Atlantic City couple. The wife sold knickknacks on the Boardwalk; her husband pumped gas for $200 a week. A daughter, Iqra, was born to them last month. The Canadian government provided a crib.
“The Pakistani government is a frontline ally of the U.S., and no Pakistanis were involved in 9/11,” said the husband, Muhammad Sajid. “People from many other countries live in the U.S. without visas. America betrayed us.”
Also in the building is Nasreen Khan, who fled Pakistan eight years ago with her son Zohaib, now 16, after her husband’s murder. They, too, were underground workers in Atlantic County, where one in four people is an immigrant. Most are here legally and work for the casinos.
The Hamilton newcomers include U.S. green-card holders and citizens. But most were illegal immigrants at the margins of America’s economy who had been professionals in Pakistan.
“They are high-skilled people. They will not have a problem finding a job,” said Madina Wasuge, program manager for a Hamilton resettlement agency.
Many have sought asylum based on a fear of persecution in Pakistan. Others have cited an anti-Muslim climate in the United States – an argument yet to be ruled on by Canadian officials. Asylum is a pathway to citizenship.
The refugees interviewed – four former New Jersey families with five children – said they were relieved at the opportunity to work on-the-books.
“I am happy here,” Butt said. “It’s a good country. I can work, and I can pay the government taxes.”
Back in Atlantic City, a new tenant lives in the attic apartment that Butt left. Another immigrant works his shift, 7 p.m. to 8 a.m., at the deli.
Whatever gaps that he and others left in the labor market have been filled by high schoolers on summer break or Eastern European college students on temporary work visas.
As Haroun Rashid, owner of a cigarette stall on the Boardwalk, put it: “Life here is going on. People come with money in their pocket. When they go home, they are broke. And the next day, new people come.”
Though small businessmen are scraping by with less reliable employees, the toll of the exodus has not been economic.
“It’s a community loss,” said Mukhtiar Memon, the friend who drove Butt to Canada.
Butt had taught children in Atlantic City the Koran at no charge. Three hours a day, six days a week, three dozen students crammed into his apartment. The hafiz now teaches seven in Hamilton.
“He’s a small-time guy,” Memon said. “He doesn’t have papers. He doesn’t have money. Yet a hundred people came [to say goodbye], like some special person is going.”
Atlantic County’s population of Pakistanis – once about 2,000 strong, according to mosque leaders – has thinned by half as they left for Canada, Pakistan and other countries.
The plastic sheets once spread outside for overflow Friday worshipers at Masjid al-Taqwah are no longer needed. Its burial ground will go unbuilt. And the mosque’s coffers – before 9/11, usually at $500 – now hold $12,000.
The needy who would have emptied them are gone.
© The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.