Former Wash. guardsman fights deportation order

(MILITARY TIMES)   YAKIMA, Wash. — Although Muhammad Zahid Chaudhry is fighting deportation from the United States, he still flies an American flag at his west Yakima home.

“That is my flag,” he says. “I’m very attached to it. I’m a soldier and I respect that flag.”

Heeding those words, the 36-year-old Pakistani immigrant living in Yakima joined the Army National Guard and was sent to active duty at Fort Lewis and Fort Irwin, Calif.

Now, the country he served is kicking him out.

Immigration authorities are denying him U.S. citizenship because he failed to disclose old misdemeanor convictions in Australia when he applied for a visa a decade ago.

Chaudhry — who claims he was coerced into pleading guilty to the crimes, for which he paid fines — says he didn’t realize they were classified as convictions. He alerted U.S. immigration authorities after learning otherwise years later.

He says his honesty is costing him his dream of living in this country with his wife Ann, a U.S. citizen.

But immigration authorities say he misrepresented himself just to further his stay in the United States. In April, he faces an immigration judge in a deportation hearing.

“There’s not a word to describe the overwhelming depression,” Ann Chaudhry said as her eyes moistened. “It gets you down. You just want to go crawl in a hole sometimes. It’s constant and people who haven’t gone through this type of problem can’t comprehend what it’s like.”

On a recent morning, Chaudhry sits quietly in his wheelchair in his west Yakima home. His wife hands him a napkin filled with pills he takes to tolerate the pain that shoots from his broken back. He rarely leaves his home.

He arrived in the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1998 and planned a life in the U.S. military when he joined in March 2001. A month later his application for permanent residency was approved. But a series of back injuries he sustained during training exercises that required him to repeatedly sprint and drop to the ground while toting a rifle and pack at Fort Lewis eventually confined his life to a wheelchair. He was honorably discharged in May 2006.

Despite his infirmities, Chaudhry is not leaving the country without a fight.

He’s filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Yakima seeking citizenship based on his military service and good conduct while living here.

He has the support of neighbors, military veterans, his church, members of Congress and even a former immigration adjudicator, totaling 28 letters requesting immigration authorities to allow him to stay in the country.

Among the letters are ones from Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. Hastings noted Chaudhry’s disability from his military service as well as his service as a volunteer firefighter in Yakima and volunteer work with the Red Cross youth program.

Murray and Cantwell described him as an “asset to his community, friends and family,” and like Hastings, asked that immigration authorities give Chaudhry full consideration in his request for citizenship.

Chaudhry’s attorney, Devin T. Theriot-Orr of Seattle, says immigration authorities shouldn’t be concerned with minor convictions from nearly 15 years ago.

“He’s been a model citizen. He was willing to die for his country in the service and this is how he’s getting repaid?” Theriot-Orr said. “Hopefully a wise eye will see that this is not a case that they want in the public eye and Mr. Chaudhry will remain in the country he loves.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services spokeswoman Sharon Rumry in San Francisco declined to talk about Chaudhry, noting that the agency does not comment on open cases.

Chaudhry’s convictions as well as other allegations attacking his moral character are outlined in an 18-page document from Citizenship and Immigration Services denying him citizenship. Chaudhry provided that information to immigration authorities when he applied for citizenship.

Although he denies committing the crimes, he pleaded guilty to using a passport and credit card that did not belong to him. He paid about $1,450 in fines and restitution and says Australian police promised that the convictions wouldn’t go on his record.

In addition to those convictions, U.S. immigration authorities say Chaudhry also misrepresented himself on applications to the military and Yakima police, when in 2001 he sought to become a reserve officer. He told the police, for example, that he could provide proof of citizenship; Chaudhry said he only meant to show he was in the U.S. legally.

Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle, said he was surprised when he learned the government had reviewed Chaudhry’s employment application with the Yakima police.

Usually immigration authorities don’t look into a person’s employment history when considering an application for citizenship, Adams said.

“In all my time, I’ve never seen anything like that,” Adams said. “Just on its face, it looks like they are just trying to find things to deny him.”

Chaudhry applied for citizenship in 2004 and received his denial in August 2008. When immigration authorities said they found him to “lack good moral character,” he filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Yakima.

Adams says Chaudhry has a solid case, given the fact that none of the convictions are crimes that would make him ineligible for citizenship.

Meanwhile, Chaudhry has applied for disability benefits and his wife has quit a bookkeeping job to take care of him full time. They say they have dipped into savings, cashed in IRAs and taken out a second mortgage just to get by.

“I’m hoping that someone somewhere will wake up and see what’s going on,” Chaudhry said. “I really think that someone just hasn’t looked at the whole picture.”

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