Yousef Medhani, who asked us not to use his real name, left Lahore, Pakistan with his family for Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn three years ago.When Medhani first came to America he thought he had found a new home for life. "We had good hopes for America," he said.
For the past year, Medhani, a former university teacher, has worked as a driver for a car service illegally because his visa extension applications were rejected twice when checks from his immigration lawyer bounced. "Now I’m scared that maybe they arrest me on the spot."
Since December the Immigration and Naturalization Service has required "non-permanent" U.S. residents from 25 nations to register with the agency-- a process that would reveal Medhani's immigration status. Instead of registering, Medhani decided to leave the United Stares for Canada.
Like Medhani, hundreds of undocumented New Yorkers have chosen to pack up and start over again in Canada because they fear detainment if they register.
"My kids come home from school and say, â€my friend, Imad, left with his family to go to Canada. Why did they go to Canada?" and I say "Oh, because his father got a good job up there,’ " he said.
In fact many Pakistanis go to Canada to apply for refugee status. After crossing the border, most will be transported to Montreal or Toronto until Canada’s refugee board decides whether or not to grant asylum to individual cases.
According to Pakistan Post, between December 27-31, Pakistanis counted for 235 of the 240 refugee claimants at the Plattsburgh, New York border. However, U.S. and Canadian officials have been discussing for a tighter border security that includes the "smart border" agreement, which will immediately send refugee claimants back to the United States.
But undocumented immigrants do not have many options if they stay: either they flout the law and stay illegally or register and risk deportation. Nonetheless, Medhani says he might not feel comfortable staying if he did have legal status.
"We are feeling victimized. In my knowledge, this is not a democracy where they snatch rights away from human beings like that. This is more like a communist country."
Neighborhood residents say that undocumented immigrants aren’t the only ones heading for Canada; some American citizens and green card holders are leaving as well, citing persecution and a declining quality of life for all Pakistanis in New York. One long-term Pakistani resident of New York said, "We are being made to feel like third-class citizens. I don’t want my children to grow up around this kind of hatred."
On Coney Island Avenue, home to the city’s largest Pakistani community, many shops and restaurants are conspicuously empty. According to a spokesman from the Council of Pakistani Organizations, "Some people just up and left their businesses; there was a barber shop here and one day it was just closed and the owner never showed up."
In spite of his troubles here, Medhani said he will miss his first adopted home, "I love America, especially Brooklyn. A lot of my friends say, "Come to Queens," and I say, no, you don’t know about Brooklyn, it’s beautiful."