Nabeel is a 27-year-old Catholic man seeking asylum from Pakistan. Allies for Immigration Justice met him when he reached out asking for help in finding an immigration attorney. He is now a client of the Santa Barbara Immigrant Legal Defense Center, a local organization that provides pro bono legal services to immigrants who do not have the financial resources to hire a lawyer. He is currently residing in San Luis Obispo and going to school at Cuesta College while he waits for his case to be heard in court.
In 2019, Nabeel fled his country of Pakistan due to religious persecution. He was beaten in 2018 by religious extremists who claimed that he had spoken against their religion. When he told the police, they did nothing. Fearing for his life, Nabeel went to his parish priest for advice, and with the help of a local bishop, he was able to obtain an expedited visa to Panama.
Even though his paperwork was in order, the airport officials in Pakistan tried to stop him from leaving by canceling his passport and taking his phone away. He said, “I know my rights, you cannot take my phone,” and he began filming. Others in the airport who saw what was happening also began filming, and in the end, he was allowed to go through the security checkpoint. The official who stamped his passport said to him, “I hope I never see you again.”
Once he was in Panama, Nabeel made an application in order to seek asylum there. But after his initial interview with immigration officials, he was not called again. In Panama, you are not allowed work authorization while waiting for your asylum case to be heard. He was barely able to support himself working odd jobs for cash. He was fortunate to make friends with an American couple living in Panama who generously welcomed him into their home.
In November 2021, after almost two years of trying for asylum in Panama, he decided to make the long trek to the U.S. With him were two Pakistani friends that he had met during his stay there.
The four-month journey to the U.S. was dangerous. They spent days hiking through the jungles and open wilderness of Latin America. They camped at night and traveled during the day. They slept on the bare hard ground and some nights were very cold. Nabeel had one meal a day, usually boiled rice. He found it helpful that he was able to use the Spanish he learned while living in Panama to communicate.
Along the way, Nabeel had struggled with the question of what to do when he arrived at the U.S. border. Ever since the U.S. southern border was closed at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 under Title 42, people seeking asylum have been turned away at the ports of entry. Having no legal option to seek asylum, increasing numbers of families and individuals are attempting to cross illegally between the ports of entry, out of desperation. In the end, Nabeel and his friends decided that this was the surest way to have any hope of requesting asylum.
When they arrived at the border in Mexicali, Nabeel and his friends were prepared to attempt to cross the border, but the Federales (the Mexican national police force) stopped them. “We were sitting right in front of the border fence, hidden in a lot of bushes, and the Federales showed up out of nowhere. They said, ‘Don’t look at us’ and hit us with the butts of their rifles. They beat us and took our backpacks with our belongings and our money.”
The Federales probably tipped off the immigration authorities that Nabeel and his friends had tried to cross the border because the next day, immigration officers came to the hotel where the three men had spent the night and arrested them. They were transported about 2 hours away to an immigrant detention center in Tijuana.
While he was in the Tijuana prison, Nabeel had no contact with his American friends in Panama. They had been in regular contact with him throughout his journey, so after not hearing from him for 2 weeks, they got very worried and feared that he was dead. They made a connection with a journalist in San Diego and told him Nabeel’s story. The journalist got in touch with a Mexican immigration official in Tijuana and told him that he was covering Nabeel’s story, sharing some details. He was told, "I'll see what I can do.” Nothing happened right away, so the reporter called again. Nabeel’s friends in Panama sent a copy of his passport to the immigration officer. Once his identity had been verified, Nabeel was released, along with his two friends.
Of the trip to the border, Nabeel said, “The last three months of the trek before I arrived in the US nearly broke my body and spirit.”
Upon getting released the three men headed back to the Mexicali-Calexico border. Nabeel and his friends climbed a ladder over the border barrier and dropped into U.S. territory, where they were apprehended by Border Patrol agents. They initiated their asylum claim by telling the border patrol agents that they wanted to seek asylum.
Nabeel ended up at the Imperial Detention Facility in Calexico; his friends were sent to other detention centers. During his stay there, Nabeel passed his credible fear interview. (The credible fear interview is conducted by an asylum officer and determines the credibility of the person’s asylum case. Based on the results, people are allowed to continue the process for seeking asylum or are placed into deportation proceedings.) Security checks about Nabeel’s identity were conducted through the FBI. After about a month in custody, he was released.
In February 2022, he arrived in San Luis Obispo County where he lives with his sponsor. Nabeel’s two Pakistani friends who traveled with him were released to relatives living in Colorado and Pennsylvania. They are currently also waiting for their asylum hearings. (Many immigrants are released from immigrant detention to live with relatives in the U.S. If an immigrant does not have family here, then they may be released to a sponsor.)
Through the Santa Barbara Immigrant Legal Defense Center, Nabeel qualified for free legal counsel, for which he is deeply grateful. Access to legal counsel profoundly affects the success of an asylum seeker’s case. (Of those without representation, only 1 in 10 claimants ultimately win their asylum case. In contrast, those represented by counsel are at least three times more likely to have their claims approved.)
Nabeel left behind his parents and his older brothers and sisters in Pakistan. Everyday he makes a WhatsApp video call so he is able to see and talk to his parents. “They are old. I worry about them and I miss them.”
While he waits for his case to be heard in immigration court, he's not wasting any time. He is currently taking some pre-requisite courses for the nursing program at Cuesta College with the hopes of being accepted into the nursing program in the future. As soon as he receives work authorization, he plans to get a job. He is also volunteering with the Freedom for Immigrants hotline, which provides support for immigrants in immigration detention.