After ten months of being locked up in the immigration detention center in Aurora, a Pakistani man who desperately wanted to be deported finally got his wish: On December 20, Syed Irbaz Shah was removed from the United States.
Westword chronicled Shah's complicated and paradoxical situation in a cover story (“Here Today, Here Tomorrow,” October 23) detailing how the Pakistani national became stuck in the United States in a bureaucratic nightmare. A few of the plot points: Canadian authorities lost Shah's passport before he was extradited to the United States in late 2017 under indictment for a financial crime; he wound up not needing to go to trial and receiving only a $500 fine from the U.S. Attorney's Office; he was subsequently detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement before he could return to his wife and kids in Canada; and he finally landed in lockup for almost a year because of numerous miscommunications between ICE and a Pakistani consulate.
American taxpayers, meanwhile, had to foot the $133-a-day bill for Shah's imprisonment while he and his lawyers requested again and again that he be removed from the United States, a task that would seemingly be easy during today's deportation-loving presidential administration.
It would take additional efforts — and taxpayer money — to finally get Shah deported to Karachi, where he is working on obtaining permission to return to his wife and children in Canada. On January 17, we were able to connect with Shah via WhatsApp as the thirty-year-old strolled around an open-air market in the Pakistani city at 11 p.m. (nightlife in Karachi starts late). With car horns and other urban noises swirling in the background of the call, Shah explained how he and his lawyers in Colorado, including immigration attorney Aaron Hall, had planned to file a habeas petition in federal court in late December if Shah still hadn’t been removed from the U.S. by that time. A habeas petition would have been feasible once six months had elapsed since Shah’s June 2018 deportation order, and would have forced the issue of bond so that he could get out of detention.
"But after your article came out in late October, that's when ICE suddenly said, 'Oh, a travel ban has been lifted and we can buy flights again,'” Shah says.
The travel ban to which Shah refers was not a national ban, such as the Muslim ban issued by President Trump early in his administration, but a vague, unverified justification that ICE gave Shah and his immigration lawyer as a reason the agency couldn’t stick Shah on a flight back to Pakistan. This was despite the Pakistani consulate in Houston telling ICE that it could issue Shah a one-time travel document to accommodate his deportation.
"I think it was maybe an excuse, because it doesn't make any sense,” Shah says of ICE’s rationale. “Personally, I believe they're just incompetent."
“I was never able to confirm that there was any kind of nationwide travel freeze," Hall says. "I did reach out to colleagues around the country to see if anyone had heard of it, and nobody had."
So Hall prepared the habeas petition in the event that Shah was still incarcerated in late December. But then he learned that ICE had new plans to deport Shah on December 20. "Because they had a trip planned, we held off on actually filing it with the court, with the idea that we would file if he did not get removed as they said he was," Hall recalls.
The journey to Pakistan was as long as it was long-anticipated. It took thirty hours and included multiple legs: Denver to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Seoul, Seoul to Bangkok, and Bangkok to Karachi.
"They showed me the ticket, which was like $4,000,” Shah says. “That's amazing, because I'm pretty sure you could find something from Denver to Pakistan for like $2,000."
ICE also paid for two officers to escort him the whole way, then fly back to Colorado without ever leaving the Karachi airport. "That wasn't because of security risk, but because the airline said I needed to have an escort because I was on a travel document, not a passport," Shah explains.
But he adds that he already knew the two ICE officers from the detention center in Aurora and found them friendly. “In the airports, we talked about food and culture,” he says. "Then, when we got to Karachi, they basically walked me to border control, turned around and left. The escorts only had an hour in Pakistan."
In a serendipitous twist, Shah was deported just one week before his brother’s wedding in Karachi. Family members from around the world flew in for the occasion, including his mom and siblings from the United States, and other family members from the United Kingdom. Shah says it was the first time in thirteen years that the entire family had been together. Still, to the extent that he could, he avoided talking about his lengthy incarceration in the United States so as to not distract from the ceremony.
"All my close family — brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles — know [about my incarceration]," he explains. “But most of my distant relatives don't know, and so I didn't bring it up — not because I didn't want to tell them, but I'm tired of talking about it."
Hall says he’s relieved his client is now a free man. “I don't think there's any person, from the prosecutors to the ICE officers, who would truly think that Shah was ever a danger to anybody," he says. “I can't believe what he went through and the toll it's taken on his wife and his young children. My only hope is that he's reunited with them as soon as possible."
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Shah’s wife and two children couldn't attend the wedding in Pakistan. They remain in Canada, where Shah lived with them before he was extradited to the United States. "The toughest part of all of this is the time that was taken away from me being with my kids and my wife," Shah says. “But our communication is stronger now, because even though we had video chats through tablets when I was in detention, I felt weird knowing we were being recorded and watched."
Shah now must jump through additional bureaucratic hoops so that he can return to his family in Canada. During his incarceration in the U.S., Shah says, the Canadian consulate in Denver had told him that the Canadian government would issue him a visa to enter the country as long as he had a valid passport.
Shah indicated in a text to us on Monday, January 21, that he had just obtained a new Pakistani passport and is visiting the Canadian consulate in Karachi in the hopes of getting a visa to travel to Canada.
Throughout his whole ordeal, Shah says, he tried to remain as stoic as possible. He found it important to stay positive. "My philosophy is that you should live to have the most dynamic life,” he muses. “And now I've experienced prison with some of the worst people, and immigration detention with people from all walks of life. So it's good, because on one hand, I've seen the worst of human nature, but now that I’ve come out [of detention] and into reality, I can read people better and I'm more confident."