CITYPEOPLE; Broken Promises



FOR Belayet Hossain and his family, the promise of America will most likely end on Feb. 19.

     Like thousands of others, Mr. Hossain, a baker who lives in Kensington, Brooklyn, was picked up for violating his visa under a controversial aspect, now defunct, of a "special registration" program. This program, started in November 2002, required men from North Korea and 24 mostly Muslim countries to register in person with the federal government. Mr. Hossain registered last April.

 Since then, his world has been a nightmarish combination of bad luck, bad timing and, to him, incomprehensible bureaucracy. As a result, barring a last-minute reprieve, he will soon be bound for Bangladesh, his homeland, even though his application for a green card is being processed.

But Bangladesh can hardly be called home for Mr. Hossain's daughter, Farzana, a shy 10-year-old whose main focus in life is graduating from fifth grade.

In 1993, searching for work, her parents left Bangladesh for Botswana, where she was born. Farzana does not read or write Bengali and has been to Bangladesh for only two brief visits, neither of which she remembers. On her first trip, she got so sick from the heat and the water that her parents cut the trip short.

To Farzana, the impoverished South Asian county her parents come from is as unimaginable as America was for her parents before they came here in 1997 seeking better medical treatment for Farzana, who, they said, had severe jaundice.

"I really don't know Bangladesh," Farzana said the other day as she sat in her mother's lap in the spare front room of the family's small apartment on Cortelyou Road. Although the family lives on a pleasant, tree-lined street, the apartment feels temporary. Coats hang on random nails, and curtains are knotted in place with rope. Mr. Hossain, his wife, Nilufa Begum, and Farzana share a single queen-size mattress. "No money," Ms. Begum said, giggling.

If Mr. Hossain is deported, his family will follow. "My culture, ladies don't live alone," Ms. Begum said. "They must be with husband."

Farzana attends nearby Public School 179. Aside from a pink GameBoy, she has few visible toys. She wants braces. While Bangladesh may not be fully real to her, her coming graduation from elementary school, complete with cap and gown, is.

"I'm not happy at all, because my graduation is coming," Farzana said. Her face froze, then she buried her head in her mother's lap. Payments for Farzana's school photos and a class trip to Medieval Times started coming due last month. "We don't know, leave or no," Ms. Begum said. "How can I give this money?"

Farzana has other concerns. "I don't want to go to Bangladesh," she blurted at one point, "because teachers hit me there. If I get a question wrong, they will hit me." Farzana is not even friends with other Bangladeshi children at her school, in part because their Bengali is better than hers. Her best friend is a Russian girl named Angelika. "When I'm so bored," Farzana said, "she cheers up my mind." She has not told Angelika she is leaving. "She'll miss me a lot," Farzana said.

Ms. Begum said she had not told the school of the family's imminent departure. They have not bought plane tickets, or figured out how to pay for them, or made plans for building a life in Bangladesh. "How can I find a job?" Ms. Begum said. "Bangladesh is not a rich country. That's why we came to America."

Although the Hossain family will probably get some financial assistance from immigrant aid groups, they must pay their way out of the country. It costs more than $1,000 to fly from New York to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh; the country's per capita income in 2002 was $380, according to the World Bank.

The family's impending departure is the result of a Kafkaesque bureaucratic saga. In April 2001, the bakery in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where Mr. Hossain worked filed an application to get him what is known as labor certification, the first step toward getting a green card. After two years, the application still had not been processed.

On April 17, 2003, Mr. Hossain reported for the special registration. The Department of Justice declared him deportable for overstaying his visa and ordered him to appear before an immigration judge. The judge granted Mr. Hossain four months for the labor certification to be processed, but it had not been completed by his next court date, Oct. 22.

According to Mr. Hossain's lawyer, Raj Bhushan, the judge refused to grant another extension, and Mr. Hossain agreed to leave by Feb. 19. Last week, Mr. Hossain's labor certification was approved, and given that development, Mr. Hossain's lawyer said, he may be able to reopen his case. But Mr. Bhushan will not be handling it. "I'm a solo practitioner," he said. "I only charged him $200 for two court appearances. I just don't have the resources to fight this battle."

LAST week, Sin Yen Ling, an attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, agreed to take Mr. Hossain's case, and she plans to file the motion to reopen it tomorrow. The judge will decide whether Mr. Hossain may remain in the country beyond Feb. 19, but Ms. Ling thinks Mr. Hossain has a good chance of getting a little more time.

Immigrant rights advocates say Mr. Hossain's case is not unusual. "There are thousands and thousands of people who did not register, and they are doing fine," said Partha Banerjee, an organizer with New Immigrant Community Empowerment, an advocacy group in Jackson Heights, Queens. "People who actually decided to comply with the law are suffering for it. What kind of a legal system is this?"

But the Department of Homeland Security maintains that the special registration program did exactly what it was designed to do: identify people, like Mr. Hossain, who had overstayed their visas. "They found this guy," said Garrison Courtney, a spokesman for the immigration and customs enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security. "He overstayed his visa, and we put him in the court system."

Mr. Hossain was one of 83,519 long-term visitors who registered in person; an additional 93,741 visitors registered upon arriving in the United States. Deportation proceedings were started against 13,799 people. No one identified through the program has been convicted of terrorism, but seven people identified through this and related programs were deported because of affiliations with terrorist groups. In January the Department of Homeland Security began a new program that will screen most visitors when they enter the United States.

Mr. Courtney said the main focus of the special registration program was not terrorism. "It's visa compliance," he said. "That's 13,799 people trying to stay here illegally. That's the bottom-line issue. You have 8 to 11 million illegal aliens in the United States."

The Hossain family may or may not get to stay in the United States. But the ramifications of their case, and the many others like it, for the more than 600,000 Muslims in New York City are profound. "It just creates anger," said Adem Carroll, the Sept. 11 relief coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America, a religious group of mainly South Asian Muslims based in Queens. "That's not what we need Muslims to be these days. You would think the authorities would care not to exclude and alienate us." As for Farzana, she says she wants to be a lawyer when she grows up.