Facing deportation, couple take sanctuary in Old Lyme church

Old Lyme — A Pakistani couple who have been in the United States for more than 18 years are taking sanctuary at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, following an order from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to leave the country on March 19.

They originally were scheduled for deportation on March 2 but their flight was canceled due to inclement weather.

Malik Naveed Bin Rehman and Zahida Altaf live in New Britain and own the Pizza Corner restaurant. Their 5-year-old daughter, Roniya, is a U.S. citizen.

Jason Ramos, part of the Keep Rehman & Altaf Home Advocacy Team, said that their request for a stay of the order was denied. The organization held a Thursday evening news conference, a video from which was posted on its Facebook page, about the couple's plight at the church.

"We're working hard here in Connecticut," Rehman said in the video, becoming emotional. "We pay the taxes. We follow the law."

ICE said in a statement that Rehman and Altaf entered the country on nonimmigrant visas in 2000 "but did not depart the country in accordance with the terms of their visas."

An immigration judge issued them final orders of removal in January 2008, and the Bureau of Immigration Appeals upheld that decision in May 2010, according to ICE. They were enrolled in the Alternatives to Detention program and scheduled for removal.

According to a statement from the church, Rehman and Altaf "tried for years to extend their visas and become U.S. citizens, but were misled by an immigration attorney who was later jailed for swindling other clients."

The statement came from ministers Steve Jungkeit, Carleen Gerber and Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager.

The couple's current attorney, Rashmi Patel, declined to comment on the case.

Jungkeit, Gerber and Fitzpatrick-Nager believe that immigration law, as it is applied in these circumstances, is unjust. "We believe that, with time and reason and compassion, the couple can receive the full, fair hearing and consideration they deserve — and that justice will prevail and they will be allowed to remain in the U.S," the ministers wrote.

They said they are offering the couple a private apartment within the church "where they can live while their legal team helps them pursue all avenues of appeal with legal and regulatory authorities."

Without naming the church, ICE said in a statement that it is aware of the couple's current location.

But ICE considers places of worship to be "sensitive locations," and its policy is that enforcement activities are not to occur at such places unless "exigent circumstances exist; other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location, or prior approval is obtained from a designated supervisory official."

Advocates for the couple say that their daughter's asthma would become life-threatening if she was forced to leave the U.S. for Pakistan, which has one of the highest rates of pollution-related death in the world.

Addressing the 5-year-old on Thursday, advocacy team member Andrea Sanchez said, "Roniya, you deserve to be the scientist that you want to be, and go to school here, where you won't be targeted for being a girl, where you won't have to worry about your asthma, where you can be free and beautiful and brilliant."

Sanchez is a junior at Central Connecticut State University. She also was involved in advocacy for Mariano Cardoso Sr., a New Britain man who was granted a last-minute stay in December shortly after the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme offered him sanctuary.

Rehman and Altaf also have received support from Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, Action Together CT, Shoreline Indivisible, ACLU People Power, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty.

e.moser@theday.com

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