An abridged version of this article was published by Religion News Service.
Ehsan Rehan had never imagined he would end up in Washington, D.C.
When he left Pakistan for the last time in 2012, his final destination – by way of New York – was Canada, where the 22-year old asylum seeker had a support network of family and friends waiting for him.
But the more Rehan talked to friends in America,the more he became convinced Washington, with its access to government and policy experts, would be a better location to help bring change for members of his harshly persecuted community back in Pakistan.
Rehan belongs to the Ahmadi community, a tiny minority sect of Islam famously shared by Academy Award-winning actor Mahershala Ali. But many Muslims consider Ahmadis heretics, due to the movement’s belief in its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s claim of being a final messiah.
A majority of the world’s Ahmadis, estimated at about 10 million, reside in Pakistan under daily threat of persecution that has grown dramatically in the last decade with expanding hardline influences. In the last few years, hundreds have been killed at their mosques and homes, sometimes by vigilante mobs. In one 2010 attack on two Ahmadi mosques, over 90 people were killed and 108 injured. Two Ahmadi doctors and a college professor were murdered just this March in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
The Pakistani Constitution only makes life harder for the community, which is legally barred from performing any Islamic rituals in public or identifying as Muslim on official documents. While many Ahmadis tend to be highly educated, they struggle to find sustained employment due to their faith.
Unsurprisingly, Ahmadis constitute a majority of Pakistanis seeking international asylum on the basis of religious persecution. While Pakistan is not on the list of countries from where the Trump Administration has sought to ban refugees, some immigration attorneys claim restrictions for most predominantly Muslim countries, including Pakistan, have tightened – making the already desperate situation of asylum-seekers like Pakistani Ahmadis even more precarious.
The Pakistani origin of Tashfeen Malik, one of the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino, Ca., terror attack, didn’t help matters. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) was criticized for its failure to screen Malik, and she quickly became a poster child for a campaign to halt the apparently unstoppable wave of radical Muslims entering America.
The numbers, however, tell a different story.
According to Department of Homeland Security’s immigration statistics yearbook, 1.7% of over a million immigrants who received permanent U.S. residency in 2015 were from Pakistan.
On the other hand, out of nearly 18,000 asylum applications approved by the U.S. in 2015, about 1.5% were from Pakistan. China, El Salvadore and Guatemala topped the list of countries for asylum-seekers, with Egypt the only Muslim-majority country in the top five.
Hassan Ahmad, who has practiced immigration law in Vienna, Va. for 15 years, says that even before Trump presidency, it was extremely difficult to get visas from Pakistan.
“Most people wind up getting denied, it’s as simple as that.”
In the case of refugees and asylum-seekers, Anam Rahman, an attorney with Calderón Seguin who has handled such cases, believes the Government already takes its time vetting them, whether they are from war-torn countries like Syria or more stable ones like Pakistan.
The average timeline for refugee resettlement is 18 to 24 months, which includes reviews by the State Department and other federal agencies, in-person interviews, health screenings and often, cultural orientations. The best indicator of its success may be that no refugee has ever committed an act of terror on American soil.
“The difficult part is that a lot of asylum-seekers languishing in multi-year background checks are also separated from families whose lives might be in danger. Only once you have a formal grant can you start a petition process to bring family members to join you,” Rahman said.
“I had to get away”
Rehan, 26, grew up in Pakistan’s small, Ahmadi-majority town of Rabwah. A precocious child, he began to question the pervasive fear around him early on. His father, a qualified marketing professional, was fired from one job after another, and family members who had moved to larger cities for work lived in secrecy, hiding their faith from their closest friends and colleagues.
While still in high school, Rehan founded Rabwah Times, a digital magazine about religious freedom issues and minority rights in Pakistan. He also applied for the Pakistan Army, clearing the written exam but rejected as soon as his interviewer learned he was Ahmadi. After undergrad, he tried to launch a weekly print newspaper in Rabwah, but the political atmosphere for Ahmadis had gone from bad to worse, and Rehan was flatly denied registration for the newspaper.
Dismayed by the rejection and the increase in targeted violence against his community, Rehan decided he didn’t want to live like this.
“I felt I had to get away, one way or the other.”
Given his fiery online writings about minority rights – a potential death sentence for Pakistani activists and journalists – Rehan’s parents encouraged him to leave the country, despite him being their only child. He applied for a U.S. visit visa, contemplating the path a majority of his Ahmadi classmates had taken: seeking faith-based international asylum.
But the visa was denied. Feeling hopeless, Rehan left Pakistan to backpack across Nepal and Malaysia, but returned in a few months and decided to give it one last shot– almost certain of another rejection.
Stuck with an identity
Rehan remembers when he was called back for a second visa interview at the U.S. Consulate in Islamabad.
“Normally, they seat the visit visa applicants in a common room, while immigrant interviews take place in a private room,” he recalls. “I was one of the first ones to come in, but it was almost closing time when they finally called me – into the private room.”
The American visa officer, seated behind bullet proof glass, opened Rehan’s passport and pointed his finger to the column declaring his religion. He then asked, “What’s this?”
Rehan asked him what he meant by the question, but he just nodded again toward the column. He suddenly realized the officer didn’t want to go on record questioning him about his religion, and that he was hinting that Rehan’s actual purpose for the visit was to later apply for faith-based asylum.
“I didn’t want to lie, so I simply said yes, I am Ahmadi. He perhaps thought I didn’t get the hint, and began asking about my website, the kind of issues I wrote about. I told him honestly about my views and work. And then he said I was good to go.”
While Rehan got the visa, he was struck by how his religion had now been questioned not just by the Pakistani state but also a country that eschews religious discrimination.
“I felt like my religious identity, as conveyed on that passport by the Pakistani state, was stuck with me forever. Whatever I did in life, it would always be secondary to that identity.”
Counterterrorism gone overboard?
While one might assume that the San Bernardino tragedy might have been avoided had Malik not entered the U.S., whether she harbored the intent to commit terror before arriving has never been proven.
“National origin is a poor indicator of propensity toward terrorism,” says Ahmad, the attorney in Vienna, Va. “The focus has to be on the actual process. Are there ways to continually improve it? Absolutely!”
In fact, the many databases used to check terrorism screening are more cross-linked than ever before. But Ahmad see incidents like San Bernardino as an easy excuse for politicians to scrap the entire system and replace it with one that simply throws up a wall or ban.
Yet, in February, 10 top bipartisan national security experts submitted federal court testimony stating the Trump Administration’s proposed ban on Muslim-majority countries compromised safety of U.S. troops overseas. And ultimately, there is just not enough statistical evidence to justify banning Muslim travelers, immigrants or refugees on the basis of criminal activities. In Pakistan’s case, just 29 people were deported in 2015 due to criminal activities. For Syria, not a single entrant to the U.S. was deported for criminal actions out of four total deportees in 2015.
Another aftermath of indiscriminate immigration bans is motivating people with nefarious intent to take advantage of people fleeing from the same terrorist elements that America is fighting.
“Not giving such people a safe refuge plays into the same narrative of this being a civilizational struggle,” Ahmad says. “It arguably creates more terrorists than it keeps out.”
Targeting of Muslim travelers is not new. President Obama tightened restrictions on the number of Iraqi immigrants and refugees entering the U.S., and a notorious Bush-era program targeting Muslim immigrants to date was brought to light through a 2016 lawsuit against the USCIS by 13 Muslim Missouri residents. The Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CARRP) uses broad discriminatory criteria to flag immigration benefit applicants from Muslim-majority countries as national security concerns. It then directs USCIS officers to delay and ultimately deny their applications— without ever informing the applicants why.
So could the current administration’s policies really get much worse for Muslim refugees like Rehan than they already are?
Rahman says yes. She is telling her asylum clients to be patient and expect longer waits.
“We still don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that my Syrian clients’ cases continue languishing when others aren’t,” she says.
A pathway to freedom
Rehan arrived in New York in June 2012, just shy of his 22nd birthday. He then made his way to Washington’s Maryland suburbs to apply for asylum. Within a few weeks, the USCIS had taken his fingerprints and began its screening process. In January, Rehan appeared for the interview that would ultimately decide his fate.
Interviewers for asylum applicants seek concrete evidence of persecution and are trained to spot the signs of falsified information. In Rehan’s case, they also relied on reports issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to verify claims of Ahmadi persecution in Pakistan. Extensive background checks confirmed that Rehan was indeed an active and practicing member of his community, and wasn’t feigning his association.
While many asylum applicants hear of a decision within three months, Rehan’s complex travel history extended this wait to nine months. But while his application was pending, he did receive a work permit, and quickly found a job as a digital marketing specialist for a local restaurant. Such work permits are typically restricted up to 2 years, and allow applicants to get temporary drivers’ licenses and social security numbers to become financially independent as they wait.
Once Rehan’s application was accepted, he had to give up his Pakistani passport. He became eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship a year later, and as he awaits a Green Card, he must use a special travel document if he leaves the country. While he can now travel to Pakistan, he doesn’t think he will any time soon, for fears of his and his family’s safety, who remain in Rabwah.
Along with his full-time job, Rehan continues to run Rabwah Times – which international human rights watchdogs now rely upon for news about Ahmadi persecution. He routinely reports on human rights organizations working on religious tolerance in Pakistan, and often meets with American policymakers and those visiting from Pakistan in a quest to influence positive change in Pakistani policies as well as educate the American public about his community.
Human Rights & Blasphemy laws now being discussed at U.S Capitol pic.twitter.com/rKuQZcfGpV
— Ehsan Rehan (@Ehzan) July 14, 2016
with Zaki Barzinji, the White House liaison to American Muslims pic.twitter.com/c2RLgPVNa5
— Ehsan Rehan (@Ehzan) September 16, 2016
— Ehsan Rehan (@Ehzan) September 11, 2014
In addition, Rehan has also thrown himself into life in D.C., such as volunteering for annual 9/11 memorial blood drives at the U.S. Capitol each year, and becoming a fixture at local community events. He is grateful for all these opportunities, and hopes his small efforts can make some difference for his adopted country as well as the loved ones he was forced to leave behind.
“I feel like America didn’t just give me refuge and a pathway to freedom,” he says. “It’s given me a stronger sense of purpose.”