A changed life gets a second chance

Nazry and Hope Mustakim

By Alan Bean

Hope and Nazry Mustakim will be speaking at the kickoff event for our Common Peace Community on Saturday.  If you live in the DFW area, we invite you to join us at 12 noon in Room 302 at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.  Hope didn’t have to worry about the Department of Homeland Security until she married a man from Singapore.  That simple decision opened a door to a strange and frightening world.

Armed immigration agents woke Nazry Mustakim and his wife, Hope, as dawn broke on March 30, 2011, banging on the door of their North Waco home. Even as they handcuffed 32-year-old Naz, as friends and family know him, agents promised the arrest was merely administrative. He’d be released within hours, they said. “His case had just been flagged for some reason,” Hope said. “I was told he’d be out in no time.” Naz texted his call-center boss, saying he’d be late for work.

Days later, however, U.S. Immigration and Customs officials told Hope that Naz would be deported to Singapore and he was sent to the ICE detention center in Pearsall, south of San Antonio, to wait.

Naz immigrated to the U.S. with his family as a kid from Singapore in 1992, becoming a legal permanent resident. As a teenager, he drifted, drinking and smoking pot. By his late teens, he got into harder stuff. Addicted to meth, he faced a number of drug-related arrests and was eventually charged with felony possession.

It was then that, by all accounts, Naz turned his life around. He moved from North Texas to Waco for a faith-based rehab program and eventually earned an associates degree from Texas State Technical College. A new Christian, he became deeply religious and started working with the homeless at Mission Waco, where he would meet his future wife Hope. When his drug case went before a judge in 2007, he was already well into recovery. Looking for a second chance, and hoping to avoid jail time, Naz says he took his then-attorney’s advise and pleaded guilty to felony possession in exchange for probation, no time behind bars.

It’s likely Naz’s case was flagged when he reapplied for his green card four years ago, though remarkably it was approved without incident, he says. When immigration agents came knocking last year, they told the Mustakims it was for an order stemming from 2007. “There was a lot of chaos, a lot of confusion,” Hope said. “We thought all of that was behind us. Why hadn’t the issue come up earlier? Why four years later?”

Naz’s attorney never told him that signing the plea deal meant an automatic deportation order, putting him under the “aggravated felon” provision of immigration law, Naz says.

Instead of listing specific deportation-worthy crimes, Congress has laid out sweeping categories of criminal offenses, according to a Syracuse University research group, The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which has been studying and reporting on the immigration court system. Those include crimes of “moral turpitude,” a blanket designation involving any drug charges and so-called “aggravated felonies,” categories that include misdemeanor offenses. Non-citizens, regardless if they’re in the country legally, with any drug-related convictions could face deportation, according to TRAC’s analysis.

Within weeks of Naz’s detention in Pearsall, Hope got help from Waco- and San Antonio-area immigration attorneys. The future looked dim. “He wasn’t getting bail, and it looked like the only option was deportation,” Hope said. She drove to Pearsall to visit Naz twice a month. They celebrated their first anniversary last summer separated by plexiglass. A DREAM Act activist gave Hope a “deportation 101” packet “so I’d know what to expect,” she said.

To pay their mortgage, she stretched her student loans to the limit and went deep into debt. She was diagnosed with depression. “Naz brought in something like 80 percent of our income,” she said. “The situation was overwhelming.”

But Naz’s attorneys kept searching for ways to keep him from being deported, eventually deciding to challenge the original drug conviction. Eventually, a Cook County district attorney agreed to reopen the case when Naz’s attorneys cited a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that defense attorneys must clearly spell out any impact to a client’s immigration status before taking a plea deal. When they dug into the case there was no evidence Naz’s attorney had done so. What’s more, the sheriff’s department couldn’t find the evidence needed to rehear the case. The DA filed a motion to dismiss the seven-year-old drug charge, and immigration authorities cleared Naz to leave Pearsall earlier this month, after almost a year in immigrant detention.

Now together again in Waco, Hope and Naz know firsthand a troubling facet of current immigration policy: it’s a system slim on second chances. Due to a glaring error by Naz’s original defense team in 2007, and the tenacity of his defenders, he was lucky enough to get one.