After 212 days in church, Pakistani couple heads home
Old Lyme — After 212 days taking sanctuary in the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme while their immigration case was under appeal, Malik Naveed bin Rehman and Zahida Altaf walked out the front doors Tuesday, ready to go home — and ready to continue the legal fight.
Dozens of congregants and community members lined the walkway out of the church, receiving the couple like newlyweds leaving a chapel. Rehman and Altaf shook hands and gave hugs, slowly making their way to the van in the driveway.
When Rehman got there, he threw both fists in the air and said, "Thank you so much. I love you guys. Thank you! I love you! I miss you!"
While he and his wife surely wanted to see their 5-year-old daughter, Roniya — and their home, and their pizza place — the Rev. Steve Jungkeit was driving them first to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Hartford, to check in and to say thank you.
"I want to publicly thank ICE right now," Jungkeit said at the news conference a half-hour earlier. "I want to thank them for not opposing the stay request, and for working with us in this matter."
Lina Tuck, who heads the church's immigration committee, announced Monday evening that Rehman and Altaf would be heading home to New Britain, where they were living and operating the Pizza Corner.
The couple came to the U.S. from Pakistan in 2000 and overstayed their visas, but in their attempts to gain lawful permanent residency, they were defrauded on two separate occasions by attorneys who wound up in prison.
Facing a deportation order, they took up residence in the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme on March 19, uncertain if they would be there for days or weeks or months.
They seemed suspended in time: Many details of their put-on-hold lives remained the same even as months passed between local media attention and the intermittent stream of national media attention.
Monitored by an ankle bracelet on Rehman, the couple didn't leave the church.
Their current attorney, Glenn Formica, explained to reporters on Tuesday that they felt safe to go home because of a chain of events set into motion three weeks ago. That's when the federal government announced it would not oppose the couple's request for a stay.
The Board of Immigration Appeals had denied the request but it's under appeal with the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Formica said this process could take a year and acknowledged that the couple could then be back in the same position, though he is hoping for "good news to announce 12 months from now."
But Formica said that alone wasn't enough to end sanctuary, that they needed ICE in Hartford to say they would not detain Rehman and Altaf or ask them to get plane tickets.
Jungkeit and other pastors then put together an appeal and met with an ICE officer.
Formica said if their case is reopened, they can reapply for relief. He declined to go into specifics on relief, or why it might not be safe for them to return to Pakistan.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., attended the news conference and said that the couple make him proud to be an American. He commented on their devotion to becoming citizens, saying he guarantees that "nobody is seeking sanctuary in churches to become a citizen of Russia or China."
He will be visiting Pizza Corner on Thursday morning, and the church will be having a celebration on Sunday.
Throughout the remarks, Rehman occasionally put one hand to his heart in an expression of gratitude.
Reiterating the church's decision to provide sanctuary, Jungkeit said, "Hospitality stands at the very core of our identity as people of faith." He talked about "deliverance from captivity," citing Moses' proclamation to the pharaoh to "let my people go" before the Hebrews walked to freedom.
The minister concluded by saying, "Return no one evil for evil. Strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak and help the suffering. Honor all people. Love one another. Serve one another, rejoicing in the same spirit of hope that belongs to each and every one of us."