The Faroukhs walk across the border in the dark before dawn, a Bronx family about to become international flotsam. The wife pulls tight on her blue cloth coat against the minus 5-degree chill and wind, and tugs at the hand of her 5-year-old son. He's wrapped in a parka and carries a red King Babar backpack. They're crying.
"Cold," she whispers. "It's so cold."
Her husband walks 10 yards behind, pulling three stuffed valises wrapped in rope. He's a slender man, and his loafers slip and squeak in the snow.
They come in a steady stream to these border posts each week, hundreds of Pakistanis like the Faroukhs who have lived -- often for many years -- in the United States without legal residency papers. Pakistani men living as visitors in the United States have until Feb. 21 to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS requires men from 25 nations considered security threats to register.
For those without visas in these nervous times since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, deportation is almost a certainty. Hundreds of registrants have been arrested since the program began Dec. 16. The detentions have sparked protests and demonstrations, and this week the INS extended deadlines, but also added five nations to the registration program.
Rather than wait for the inevitable, many Pakistanis have chosen to run, often with families in tow. They hope to obtain asylum in Canada.
New York City has a vast Pakistani community, and everyone knows the route north. Each night, Pakistanis board the midnight Greyhound bus at Manhattan's Port Authority, and six hours later they arrive at a deserted strip mall on the western edge of Plattsburgh, N.Y. Taxi drivers charge $50 for the ride up through frozen northern farmlands to the border turnaround. They walk the final 300 yards through the snow to the Canadian immigration center.
At the Lacolle Center, 30 miles south of Montreal, 140 Pakistanis have walked across the border since the new year. In what were normal times, 100 Pakistanis might appear in an entire year. In Buffalo, which sits along a busier immigration route, a local shelter houses about 200 Pakistanis a night who wait to walk across the bridge to the Canadian immigration center and file asylum applications.
Ronald Blanchet, the Lacolle Center's white-haired director, watches the Pakistanis straggle in from New York State each day. These are complicated times, and he understands the United States' need to get a legal handle on those immigrants who have overstayed visas or who claimed asylum and disappeared. But he noted that his staff runs criminal background checks, and relatively few of the new arrivals flunk.
If applicants pass that hurdle, they can continue on to Montreal or Toronto and begin a year-long series of asylum hearings. Canada grants asylum to 54 percent of the applicants. Those who are rejected are returned to the United States and turned over to the American border station.
Blanchet walks among the new arrivals each morning. "They are very scared," he said. "They are afraid they will be captured and deported."
On a recent morning, 27 Pakistani arrivals from the United States pack the locked asylum room at the Lacolle Center. Sami, 28, with a thick head of curls and $22.80 in his pocket, paces by the soda machine. Three older men confer in Urdu, and struggle to fill out applications (none of those interviewed agreed to the use of their full names).
By the picture window sits Najia, 27, who the night before closed the door on four years in Alexandria, Va., and rode north with her son and daughter. The children are 3 and 6 and believe this a great adventure; her son expects to return to kindergarten on Monday.
Najia's husband left last November for Pakistan figuring there was no point in waiting to be deported. He's trying to get a Canadian visa. She cannot return to Pakistan, she said, because her former fiancee has vowed to kill her.
"My husband called me two nights ago and said go to the border." She looks up from feeding her daughter. "I feel like I'm losing my mind. I am just going with the flow."
The Faroukhs sit in the back of the room. The wife drapes her head in an embroidered pink sari and leans face-down on the plastic table and tries to sleep. The husband listens, distracted, as his son chatters about what's on television back in the Bronx, about the fat lady who sat next to them on the bus last night. He asks about what their life will be like in Canada.
Now the father shrugs; he can't answer that.
"Right now," he tells his son, "we are without status."
Everyone here is "without status," meaning that they overstayed American visas, or lost papers or have applications pending. The complications are endless and exhausting. They only know they don't want to go back to Pakistan, because it's poor and dangerous, and because their lives would be without prospects.
Their families are like seeds tossed to the wind. Brothers work the oil fields of Saudi Arabia; sisters, as domestics in Manila or Kuwait. In their telling, the United States was a golden place. Malik, 28, who has a good command of English, landed at JFK airport eight years ago. He traveled to Manhattan on his second day and fell in love. Within a month, he had an apartment in Brooklyn, near Kings Highway.
He was a limousine dispatcher, he belonged to a gym, and he said he paid taxes for the past seven years.
"In Pakistan, always I talked about coming to U.S.A, U.S.A.," he said. "New York was like my paradise."
Sept. 11 hit with the randomness of a tropical cyclone. Malik, at the gym, heard about the attacks, and by the time he got back to his apartment the first tower had fallen. "I felt terrible, and at that moment, I knew I had begun to live in a totally different circumstance."
He came to live with two fears: being a New Yorker and being a Pakistani. Stories began to run through the Pakistani community of FBI agents knocking on doors at night, and of INS raids. He saw the questioning glances and heard the jokes: "You're a Pakistani pilot. You take off, but you don't land."
He didn't say anything; he was the man without status. "Everybody doesn't get luck in life," he said. "Everyone doesn't get a green card. But I knew the time was coming when I might have to leave."
There is a solitariness to this border station. The land outside is locked in winter. The refugees help each other with forms, but mostly they sit and stare. No one slept on the ride north. The Faroukh husband smiles; he's weary.
"I just looked at the night and thought about the possibilities," he said. "There are so many possibilities."
Najia, the young mother from Alexandria, has a sister in Toronto, but she's the exception. For the remainder, Canadian "contacts" amount to a slip of paper with the name of a friend of a friend, or a tattered address book.
The application process stretches late into the afternoon. Bags are searched, and they are asked many questions. They are stateless and expect no less. By midafternoon, Malik from Brooklyn allows himself an optimistic accounting. He has no criminal record, he was a good Pakistani and a good New Yorker. He will be a good Canadian.
Now he shakes his head.
"You know my biggest regret? I never visited the Windows on the World. That was my city. You don't just close the door to a life and forget."