After an immigration judge ordered Syed Irbaz Shah removed from the United States, his lawyer did what his law firm always does whenever a client is deported with no chance of coming back: He closed the case. Aaron Hall hardly considered it a defeat, though; the attorney with the Joseph Law Firm in Aurora was actually happy to put the case to rest.
His client wanted to be deported.
As soon as Shah received his removal order on June 4, it was Hall’s understanding that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would facilitate his client’s deportation immediately. When the attorney heard nothing during the weeks that followed, he assumed that the 29-year-old Pakistani was en route to his birth country and would soon call him from Pakistan to confirm that he’d made it home safely.
Shah never called. Instead, on August 22, more than two months after the deportation order was issued, Hall received an email from Shah’s mother.
Her son wasn’t in Pakistan. He was still in the immigration detention center in Aurora.
What the hell was going on? Hall wondered as he read and reread the email. Why was his client still in ICE custody?
Hall reopened the case, then pressed ICE and the nearest Pakistani consulate, in Houston, for an explanation of the deportation delay. Their responses were as confusing as they were vague. Both government agencies told Hall that the situation was out of their control, and when Hall sent follow-up emails demanding further information, they responded at glacial rates. Another week passed, and by then it was too late: On September 5, Shah’s deportation order passed its three-month expiration mark and became void.
Today the Pakistani national remains in the Aurora immigrant detention center where he’s been held since February. While the circumstances surrounding Shah’s case are unusually complicated and technical, he, his family members and multiple lawyers believed that they could overcome any hurdles to get him out of the United States. Instead, they’ve become bit players in a Kafkaesque tale for our time, in which someone who desperately wants to be deported during the most deportation-loving U.S. administration in recent memory can’t seem to get himself booted across the border.
On a Tuesday afternoon in October, Irbaz Shah is excited to have a visitor. Aside from his lawyers, no one has come to see him at the Aurora immigrant detention center, a 1,500-bed facility that ICE contracts out to the private-prison company GEO Group.
Sitting behind one of the glass windows that separates detainees from visitors, Shah speaks animatedly into a black phone receiver, trying to explain as much as he can about his situation during the hour-long time slot before guards will take him back to Unit C-3. As a result of being inside for so long, he’s paler than normal; his dark-brown hair is matted and greasy and his cheeks are hollowed. But his bright eyes still sparkle with life as he speaks and gesticulates at a rapid-fire pace.
“So, this is day 228,” Shah begins.
He’s been counting. And on day 228, he’s brought binders of paperwork to the visitors’ room, in case he needs to reference any of the numerous legal twists and turns that his situation has taken in the previous 227 days — and even before that. He’s also brought along some light reading from the prison library: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Shah never gets a chance to explain why he has the book with him, but it’s clear that he enjoys ruminating on the misfortunes of great civilizations; at times, he feverishly goes off on tangents about geopolitics and America’s place in the world. But as soon as he’s reined in and asked about his own situation, he responds in a way more typical of an American millennial.
“Well, it’s kind of fucked up,” he says.
If the colloquialism sounds like it came right out of a high school locker room, that’s because Shah grew up attending American schools. Though he was born in Pakistan and is a Pakistani citizen, he has not lived in that country since he was two years old, when his father moved the entire family to Texas, where he’d obtained work as a geophysicist on an H1B work visa.
When Shah’s father was later transferred to a job in the United Arab Emirates, Shah finished his last two years of high school at an American academy in that Middle Eastern country. He then returned to the U.S. and studied for two years at the University of Texas at Dallas before transferring to McGill University in Montreal, where he studied mineral management on a student visa. Canada suited Shah, though what really made him decide to stay there was a particular Canadian: Khadije Bortol. They fell in love, married and started a family. Bortol had two children from a previous marriage, and she and Shah added a boy and girl of their own. Shah also found work with a local engineering firm that sponsored his Canadian work visa.
Getting into a rhythm as a professional and a family man, Shah decided to apply for permanent-residency status in Canada. But then his world turned upside down.
In October 2014, Shah and his wife were getting the kids ready for school one morning when four Canadian mounties showed up at the family’s home in Alberta with a warrant for Shah’s arrest. He was being charged with money laundering, related to a transnational drug-trafficking case that Canadian and U.S. law enforcement agencies had been investigating since 2012. According to court filings, the case had ties to Colorado: A group of drug dealers had sold tens of thousands of ecstasy pills throughout the state from 2011 through 2014, all of which were supplied by Daniel Fernandez, who operated out of Vancouver and Ottawa.
Fernandez had been Shah’s roommate for a year at McGill University.
Today, Shah says that he and Fernandez fell out of touch after Shah graduated, but they caught up one night in early 2011 at a birthday party for Fernandez’s wife. According to Shah, Fernandez made an unusual request during the party.
As Shah tells it, Fernandez asked if he would be willing to link his U.S. bank account, which was still active in Texas, to one of Fernandez’s Canadian accounts. Fernandez told his college buddy that he was finding it difficult to open his own American bank account from Canada, and that his family had a business selling electronics to customers in states including Colorado. Would Shah be willing to accept payments from those customers, then transfer the balances to Fernandez in Canada?
Shah says that he went along with the request because he believed that his friend’s business was aboveboard, he viewed the arrangement as a favor, and he wanted to build credit on his U.S. bank account. He had visions of maybe one day moving his family from Canada to the U.S., and figured a good credit score would help him get a home loan some time in the future.
Court filings from early 2018, however, suggest that Shah knew the transfers were designed to avoid financial disclosures to the IRS and law enforcement: “From July 5, 2011, through February 18, 2014, in Colorado, approximately $42,730 in cash was paid...through Mr. Shah’s Chase bank account. The amounts deposited ranged from $1,000 to $4,000 designed to avoid being reported by institutions. ... Mr. Shah was aware that these payments were structured in an attempt to prevent domestic financial institutions, including Chase Bank, from filing reports required for transactions involving $10,000 at a time.”
On the other hand, the court documents also note, “Mr. Shah did not have knowledge of the ongoing drug transactions” and “Mr. Shah did not profit from his involvement in this case.”
In person, Shah emphatically underscores those final points. “I was duped by him!” he says of Fernandez. “I took his word, and I was backstabbed. And it wasn’t just me, it was actually a bunch of people — as many as forty bank accounts.” (The Drug Enforcement Administration refers to only three bank accounts in court documents reviewed by Westword.)
Whatever Shah’s knowledge of the operation, after his arrest in 2014 he became mired in slow-moving criminal proceedings in Canada, ultimately receiving a low-level conviction and probation in 2017. But the United States still wanted to prosecute him in its own courts, and in August of that year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado arranged for Shah’s extradition to the Centennial State. U.S. marshals transferred Shah to the same GEO Group-run detention center in Aurora that houses immigrants, only in a different section of the building rented out by the Department of Justice for defendants in federal cases. Shah never went to trial, but was incarcerated for months as his criminal defense lawyer, Kathryn Stimson, worked to resolve his charges. In January of this year, U.S. prosecutors came to the conclusion that Shah was not a big fish in the drug-trafficking operation.
“They just didn’t know who I was,” Shah says. “They thought I knew something, so that’s why they extradited me.”
With the help of Stimson, Shah signed a plea deal with Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Skalla on February 7, in which he pleaded guilty to “structuring” — a financial crime in which banking is conducted in a way meant to avoid reporting transactions.
His punishment? A $500 fine.
Shah says he harbored no ill will about his lengthy incarceration; he just wanted to return to his family in Canada.
There was just one sticking point: He had no passport.
When the Canadians arrested Shah in 2014, they’d confiscated his Pakistani passport, deeming him a flight risk. But then, somehow, authorities in Canada “misplaced” the passport. Once it became clear that the passport was missing, Shah and a Canadian immigration lawyer, Laurence Cohen, tried to get a new one, but they were told that Shah had to visit a Pakistani consulate or embassy in person. At the time, Shah was marooned in Alberta with a travel restriction resulting from his criminal charges, and there is no Pakistani consulate in Alberta.
Before the situation could be resolved, the United States called for Shah’s extradition. Canada complied with the extradition request by drawing up a special one-day travel document so that Shah could be transferred to Colorado — but it failed to provide him with a second travel document that he could use to return to Canada.
As Shah’s criminal case came to a close in February, he and Stimson were well aware of the passport problem.
So was ICE.
Fearing what ICE might do to her client, Stimson sent the agency an email on February 20, noting that even the DEA agent who’d investigated Shah was willing to help get him back to Canada. Stimson wrote, “[Shah’s] criminal case will be resolved on Friday. I wanted to give you a heads up about this case to see if I could provide you with official documentation from Canada once I receive it and to work with you on arranging his return to Canada. Federal DEA Agent Brian Jeffers has offered to assist with his return, even if that includes flying with him to a port of entry in Canada. Further, Mr. Shah’s family has resources, and if we can purchase a plane ticket and he can leave the country on his own, we can also arrange that.”
Stimson also reached out to Aaron Hall for his immigration expertise. They determined that for Shah to get a travel document, he needed to show up in person at the Canadian consulate in Denver. But before Shah had a chance to do that, ICE took him into custody. While this didn’t amount to much of an environmental change — Shah was simply moved from one side of the GEO Group building to the other — it created a major change in his status.
Hall has never received a clear answer from ICE regarding why the agency arrested Shah. “I think the presumption is just that someone with a federal criminal conviction is a danger or risk,” he says. “Nobody has been willing to review the actual circumstances.”
And with Shah still locked up, there was no way that he could get to the Canadian consulate in Denver. “We then requested that ICE release him, even for a few days on an ankle monitor, so that he could go to the Canadian consulate to get a travel document to leave,” Hall recalls. “We said, ‘Listen, we can get him out of the country. He never even wanted to be here in the first place. We can get him out of the country if you let him go for a few days on an order of supervision, anything, so that he can get his documents and get out of here.’
“But ICE was not, and is not, willing to do that,” Hall continues. “So because neither government was willing to do anything outside of their normal procedures to allow him to arrange for his departure, he remained detained.”
Frustrated, Hall gave up on the Canadians and tried a different tack: He went to the Pakistani government. But that country’s diplomatic service, too, said that Shah would need to appear at a consulate — the nearest ones are in Houston and Los Angeles — so that it could collect “biometric data,” aka fingerprints, to verify that Shah was a Pakistani citizen before giving him a new passport.
Once again, Hall lobbied ICE to allow Shah to visit a consulate. He got nowhere. And neither ICE nor the Pakistani government were willing to get Shah’s fingerprints at the detention center, either.
So Shah called in the big guns: his mom.
Faiza Shah is a Head Start teacher who lives in Houston, near the Pakistani consulate. She is deeply invested in the Pakistani community and, using her connections, was able to speak with the Consul General of Pakistan in Houston, Aisha Farooqui, about her son’s situation. Farooqui was sympathetic, and apparently promised the Shah family that she would arrange to have travel documents sent to Shah without requiring him to visit a consulate or embassy in person.
But then Farooqui was distracted by more pressing matters. On May 18, a teenage student at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, walked into his school with a shotgun and revolver and killed ten people. It was the second-deadliest school shooting this year behind the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida. Among the dead: seventeen-year-old Sabika Sheikh, an exchange student from Pakistan.
Faiza Shah says that after the shooting, Farooqui escorted Sheikh’s body back to her family in Karachi. With Farooqui gone from the United States, the Shahs were handed off to a deputy official in the consulate, who was not as familiar with Shah’s situation and would not send travel documents to the detainee.
“The new person was not helpful at all,” Faiza Shah recalls. “It was so frustrating and painful.”
After that blow, Shah decided that he would advocate for his own deportation. He had been trying to avoid doing so, because orders of removal from the United States can come with ten-year bans on re-entering the country, and he wanted to be able to visit family members, including his mother. But with no end in sight to his incarceration in Colorado, Shah asked Hall to petition an immigration judge to order his removal.
The order was granted on June 4, written in a way to cover two possible deportation scenarios. As the paperwork notes: “The respondent was ordered removed from the United States to Pakistan or in the alternative to Canada.”
Since taking control of the federal government in January 2017, the Trump administration has significantly ratcheted up the nation’s deportation machine: Not only are ICE deportation arrests up by nearly 40 percent compared to the final years of the Obama administration, but President Donald Trump has signed executive orders making any undocumented person a priority for removal, has threatened deportation for hundreds of thousands of immigrants through his attempt to sunset DACA and the Temporary Protected Status program (both are now being debated in federal court), and, according to a recent Washington Post investigation, has even had agents deny passports to, and question the citizenship of, Hispanic people living along the southern border who have U.S. birth certificates.
In other words, if ever there was a time when facilitating a deportation would seem easy, it’s now.
When Hall found out that his client was still in custody in Aurora in late August, the lawyer was flabbergasted, wondering how the deportation had been botched. The arrangement he’d set up between ICE and the Pakistani consulate was clear — or so he’d thought.
When the deportation order was issued in June, the Pakistanis had agreed to send Shah a travel document as long as its consulate in Houston received a formal request from ICE. ICE officials had promised Hall that they would send the request, and then, after getting the travel document, would purchase a flight to get Shah to Pakistan. It was Hall’s understanding that Shah would then be able to travel from Pakistan to Canada and reunite with his family.
“It’s unclear what happened,” Hall says, “but ICE just didn’t make the request, even though we were emailing them for weeks. We never heard anything.”
After Shah’s removal order expired on September 4, Hall heard even more baffling news. “I got a call back from ICE saying that there was some kind of nationwide freeze on getting travel documents from Pakistan,” he says. “I reached out to colleagues around the country, and no one said they had heard about any such freeze. I also haven’t seen that published anywhere.”
Westword reached out to both the Pakistani consulate in Houston and to ICE, with numerous questions and requests for information related to Shah’s case. After repeated prodding, ICE finally sent this statement: “Shah remains in ICE custody while the agency continues to work with the Government of Pakistan to secure a travel document and effect his removal from the U.S.”
A consular attaché with the Pakistani Consulate in Houston, Khalid Hussain Jamali, wrote in an email that the consulate was still waiting for ICE to make a request for a document. As for the hold-up, Jamali could only speculate. “There is no direct flight from the USA to Pakistan, therefore ICE might have issues in booking seats, as most countries don’t allow transit on a travel document.” Jamali did not say why the consulate couldn’t just send Shah a new passport, which would alleviate any issues regarding traveling between multiple countries en route to Pakistan.
“I’ve now been here longer than anyone in my unit,” Shah says. “And you want to know the most ridiculous thing about all this? It’s costing American taxpayers $145 a day to keep me here. Pretty soon, we’ll be up to $50,000, which is the cost of sending a kid to college.”
(ICE actually pays the GEO Group $133 a day per inmate in its Colorado facility.)
During his extended incarceration, Shah’s health has become a concern. This summer, when someone infected with some kind of skin disease was detained in the facility, Shah and a number of other inmates who shared the same shower started getting boils and rashes — in Shah’s case, boils that swelled on his neck. He’s since recovered from that, but says he sometimes spits up blood in the morning. “I don’t know if it’s the altitude or what,” he adds. “But unless you’re dying or falling over, they just give you ibuprofen for everything in here.”
The GEO Group did not respond to requests for comment about conditions in its detention facility.
“Still, it could be worse,” says Shah. “I try to keep a positive attitude.”
He works for $1 a day at the detention facility’s library, work he says he enjoys. He speaks Hindi, and has been helping a few detainees with translations on their asylum applications. But mostly, he looks forward to video chats with his wife and kids in Canada. His mother, Faiza, has been financing the calls, made on electronic tablets owned by the facility, by sending money to Shah’s commissary account.
Shah’s wife, Bortol, says the video calls are the only thing keeping her grounded, though they provide little comfort. “Our youngest two kids think their dad is just away for work,” she says tearfully. “I have to keep a strong face in front of these kids, and I can barely do it anymore. I cry every night. I can’t sleep. I became sick. I lost a lot of weight. I had to go back on welfare.”
Shah was the breadwinner in the family, she explains. The cost of fighting his case, including over $70,000 in attorneys’ fees to date, has sent her into a financial tailspin; her ex-husband has taken custody of the two older kids — ages twelve and thirteen — while Bortol struggles to stay afloat and care for two toddlers, finish her schooling and take care of her ailing mother.
“At this point, all I want is for my husband to be out of jail. Whether it’s Canada, Pakistan — wherever he needs to go,” she says. “He doesn’t deserve this.”
Bortol has tried everything she can think of to help her husband. And she means everything: At one point, she says, she chased down Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when she learned he was giving a speech at a train station in Calgary. Bortol wrote a letter explaining her husband’s situation, and got to the station early so that she could get to the front of the crowd. After Trudeau’s speech, she was able to hand him the letter. “It’s extremely important that you read this!” she told the prime minister.
She says that Trudeau took her envelope, stuck it into his back pocket, and boarded the train. Bortol doesn’t know if he ever read it.
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While Shah remains in limbo, his lawyers have one final hope: In December, once six months have passed since Shah’s initial removal order, Hall says that he can file a habeas petition in federal district court demanding that Shah be allowed to pay bond and be released. Then, once he is out of detention, he can conceivably go to either the Canadian or Pakistani consulate, secure a passport or travel document, and finally leave the United States.
“Honestly, if it comes to that, it’s just embarrassing,” Shah says. “I’ve offered every solution to these guys.”
Adds Hall: “I’ve never seen anything like this — when you have a person who never wanted to be here and could leave, but ICE is choosing to keep him here at taxpayer expense.”
Asked if he sees any lesson or moral to the story, the lawyer pauses a long time before finally responding: “I really don’t see anyone who benefits from this.”