After an arrest in 1995 while in college, Farhan Ezad completed a sentence of probation, graduated with a double major, launched a career, got married and raised three children.
Now, 15 years later, the U.S. government wants to deport him for that crime: a $15 drug deal.
Immigration officials are seeking to deport him to Pakistan, a country his family left when he was just 5 years old.
He has been told he has little chance to fight his case. A criminal conviction for an aggravating felony like a drug deal is grounds for deportation without exception for a noncitizen, immigration officials and his attorney say.
What's less clear is why the government is finally pushing to remove him all these years since the night in October 1995 when he led an undercover cop to a dorm room at Rutgers University to purchase a small amount of LSD.
Paying for the past
Ezad, now 35 and living in Luzerne County, served five years of probation and went on with his life without another brush with the law. The government even renewed his green card in 2008, allowing him to lawfully remain in the United States. Ezad never heard about the drug case again until last July when Homeland Security officials conducted a 5 a.m. raid at his Poconos home to take him into custody for deportation.
He spent a week in federal custody before being released on $10,000 bail to await his March 28 deportation hearing.
"I thought it was done and over with. If I thought it was going to come back and bite me, I wouldn't have settled down. It's almost like double jeopardy. All my life I've been here," Ezad said recently, surrounded by his wife, Angel, 27, and three children, Chance, 9, Isiah, 7, and Malachi, 5, at a relative's home where they are living in Lake Township.
Since being notified of his pending deportation, Ezad learned Angel is pregnant with their fourth child.
"Not knowing if my husband is going to be here when I have this baby is difficult," Angel said.
The issue has weighed on their children as well, she said.
"They came and put him in handcuffs with my kids watching before I was able to ask any questions. They don't understand why dad's being sent away," Angel said.
Ezad says his American upbringing clashes mightily with the nation his family fled in 1980 for a better opportunity and more freedom. He also fears for his safety. He doesn't speak the country's languages. He wears earrings, has a tattoo, plays the electric guitar and listens to heavy metal music. He only privately practices his family's Muslim faith and thinks the religion is too infused in government in Middle Eastern and South Asian countries.
"People say I'm a Pakistani hippie. I'm Americanized. I don't know what I would do over there. I'd have to keep my mouth shut. I'd have to keep my own personal thoughts about the religion to myself. The tattoo on my neck would get me shot," Ezad said.
Ezad has a tattoo on the back of his neck that reads God in Arabic.
"In Islam, you're not allowed to defile your body. And another part is what the tattoo says, they'd consider it like blasphemy," Ezad said.
Another thing Ezad said he can't do is bring his white, blond and blue-eyed wife or his fair-skinned, biracial children to Pakistan.
"His uncle warned him not to bring us there. He said in all likelihood our children would be kidnapped," Angel said.
"They look like American children, and we'd fear the fundamentalists," Ezad said. "I'm pretty much in limbo and feel like I'm being exiled. It's depressing and I'm fearful."
Criminal deportations on rise
Department of Homeland Security officials wouldn't specifically comment on Ezad's case, but say deportations of convicted criminal noncitizens have been a focus in recent years.
"We have enhanced our criminal removal. We have been putting an emphasis on those who committed a crime," said Pat Reilly, a spokeswoman for the department.
She said those being deported are returned to their native country, and very rarely to a third-party nation.
Federal authorities deported 136,343 noncitizens with criminal records in 2009 and 195,772 people in 2010 under the Obama administration, compared to 102,024 in 2007 and 114,415 in 2008 during President George W. Bush's final two years, according to a report on the website of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"As a general matter, immigrants and long-term permanent residents face deportation for crimes, even minor ones, like jumping a subway turnstile or having a little pot. It imposes really awful burdens on people and their families," said Michael Tan, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. "I don't think people are really aware of how harsh the laws are. They hear 'criminal aliens,' and think it's really bad. But these laws work to detain and deport people like our neighbors who did a bad thing a long time ago."
'Doing the college thing'
In retrospect, Ezad realizes a bigger mistake was not applying for citizenship when he turned 18. He said he was eager to begin college and, at that age, didn't realize the protections it could provide. After his arrest, he was ineligible to become a citizen.
Ezad has been a permanent lawful resident of the United States, or "green card" holder, since his family moved here when he was 5 years, 4 months old. His family lived in Queens, N.Y., and Richmond, Va. before settling in Jersey City, N.J. After a modest, traditional upbringing, Ezad enrolled in the Piscataway campus of Rutgers University to pursue a degree in psychology and Middle Eastern studies. There, he experimented with drugs and alcohol.
"I was going to college and doing the college thing. I got carried away a bit. I was sheltered a bit growing up and rebelled," Ezad said.
Ezad provided The Citizens' Voice with a copy of his arrest papers, which detail his crime. As a 20-year-old college sophomore, Ezad was approached by an undercover cop on Oct. 4, 1995 looking for drugs outside a dormitory. Ezad directed the officer to follow him to a dorm room of his drug dealer. He took $15 from the officer to pay for five hits of LSD. Ezad handed over the drugs to the officer and the two parted ways.
Police charged Ezad with four criminal counts, including delivery of a controlled substance and conspiracy.
Prosecutors later noted "poor judgement and possible financial gain" as Ezad's motivation for the crime and recommended probation.
Rutgers allowed him to stay in school and he graduated on May 22, 1997 as a double major. Ezad completed probation and never got in trouble again. He has been regularly employed as a drug and alcohol counselor and at children service centers ever since, he said.
"He did a stupid thing and got in trouble. But he has never been in trouble since then," said his attorney, Shelley Grant, of Bagia and Associates, a Philadelphia-based firm specializing in immigration law.
Little can be done
While she is representing Ezad in his deportation case, Grant says there is little she can do. The law is crystal clear: noncitizens convicted of an "aggravated felony" like a drug deal must be deported, she said.
"It's inevitable, pretty much," she said. "Because it was a drug trafficking conviction, that's considered an aggravated felony. Under the current laws, there are no waivers or forgiveness. Because it's a conviction that's a deportable offense, they don't care it's 15 years ago."
Grant suspects Ezad's application to renew his green card in 2008 triggered the immigration investigation.
"Some of these old convictions are buried. Nobody pays attention to them for years. They only come to light when they travel (and try to re-enter the country) or when they go to renew their green cards," Grant said.
Grant said immigration officials often approve the green card renewal while initiating a deportation proceeding behind the scenes because "they still got you."
Noncitizens who remained crime-free after their only brush with the law previously were able to apply for a special relief waiver until that provision was repealed in 1996 in amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act, Grant said.
Ezad's only hope to remain in the country would be either getting a pardon from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Obama, a wish he and thousands likely won't have granted, she said.
Those being deported are sent back to their native country, regardless if they have no connections, Grant said.
"They don't care. They'll put you on a plane and send you off to fend for yourself. And then you hope to God you have family or distant relatives," Grant said. "He's going back to a country he knows nothing about."
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