Blumenthal meets with Pakistani couple taking sanctuary in Old Lyme church

Old Lyme — More than 50 people, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, gathered Sunday to reaffirm their support for a Pakistani couple taking sanctuary from deportation at the First Congregational Church.

The couple, Malik Naveed Bin Rehman and Zahida Altaf, are undocumented immigrants who have lived in New Britain for the past 18 years. They own the Pizza Corner restaurant in town, and have a 5-year-old daughter, Roniya, who is a U.S. citizen.

“They’ve been here for 18 years, they built a business, they raised a family, and they are Americans in every way except they are undocumented,” Blumenthal said, adding that the only reason they are undocumented at this point is they were misled by their former immigration attorney. “All they want is the opportunity to present their case … their reason for resisting this cruel and inhumane deportation.”

Blumenthal added the current situation is the byproduct of flawed priorities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He and advocates for the couple said their goal is to get the Board of Immigration Appeals to reopen Rehman and Altaf’s case.

Originally scheduled for deportation on March 2, Rehman and Altaf ended up not leaving the country when their flight was canceled due to inclement weather. ICE then ordered them to leave the country on March 19, at which point the couple sought sanctuary at the First Congregational Church.

“When that happened March 2 we stopped here,” said Altaf. “We thought something, some power, maybe we have a future for our daughter here, so we fight here.”

ICE previously said that Rehman and Altaf entered the country on nonimmigrant visas in 2000 “but did not depart the country in accordance with the terms of the visas.” An immigration judge then issued them final orders of removal in January 2008, and the Bureau of Immigration Appeals upheld that decision in May 2010. The couple was then enrolled in the Alternatives to Detention program and scheduled for deportation.

It was reported that a previous statement from church ministers Steve Jungkeit, Carleen Gerber and Laura Fizpatrick-Nager said that 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.”

Since coming to the country in 2000, Rehman and Altaf have spent the entirety of their time living in New Britain. Rehman started as a delivery driver and worked for several different pizza restaurants before opening his own restaurant.

“We are very blessed for the community,” Altaf said.

“We love New Britain, love it,” added Rehman emotionally. “It is like my hometown and I feel anytime ... I go outside I’m not scared.”

The couple said that aside from not wanting to leave their home of 18 years, they are also reluctant to leave because they are concerned about their daughter’s health. Roniya, their daughter, suffers from asthma, and advocates have said there is concern that Pakistan poses an increased health risk because it has one of the highest rates of pollution-related deaths in the world.

Sunday’s show of support also reflected the city of New Britain, or at least its leadership, that was overwhelming in favor of extending the couple’s stay. Many officials from the city were in attendance Sunday, and on March 14, the New Britain City Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the acting field office director of ICE to reconsider the couple’s removal date. New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart has also expressed support for requesting a stay for the family.

“There are different ways available than the current path we all seem to be on,” said Jungkeit, senior minister at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. “They’re people not unlike all of us. The other thing most of us don’t get to consider is what does it mean to get asked to leave forever.”

c.clark@theday.com

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