ELIZABETH, N.J. — It has been two months since the flight landed at Newark Liberty International Airport, delivering Abdul to a country that had promised him safety.
But the 25-year-old Afghan, holding a visa that allowed him to move to the United States after five years of serving the U.S. government in Afghanistan, has never officially set foot on U.S. soil. Instead, he stepped off the plane into a bewildering journey through U.S. immigration detention, during which he was stripped of his visa and placed in a holding facility for illegal immigrants without ever being told why.
Advocates say Abdul is the first known person to have his Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) revoked upon arrival to the United States but is among a few recipients of that visa to face a heightened level of scrutiny — and to be held in detention — since President Trump promised to tighten the nation’s borders.
Because the special visas are reserved for those who have risked their lives to help the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, program advocates say Abdul’s detention sends a troubling message to others who might consider helping the U.S. military at a time when the Trump administration is weighing an expanded military role in Afghanistan.
“I don’t understand why I’m being held here as a prisoner when I served the American government,” Abdul said in a recent interview through an interpreter at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center just outside the airport here.
After Abdul’s trip from Kabul on March 13, U.S. border officials denied him entry, kept him in an airport hallway for nearly two days, initially denied him access to a lawyer and had him sign a document that he couldn’t understand, he said. The document stated that Abdul had been stripped of his visa.
U.S. officials have provided no reason for denying Abdul entry. A rough transcript of his interview, as prepared by border officials, includes no questions or answers pertaining to a national security threat or criminality, instead hinting at a miscommunication about bureaucratic aspects of his visa.
ICE, which denied Abdul’s parole from its facility last month on the basis of his visa having been revoked, told him in a letter that the agency is “currently investigating the basis of that revocation.”
Abdul has a theory: “I think that it’s because I’m from a Muslim country, and I’m a Muslim.”
Abdul, who agreed to speak with The Washington Post on condition that his last name not be used because he fears the Taliban could take revenge on his family, landed in the United States two days before Trump’s revised travel ban on citizens of six majority-Muslim countries — which did not include Afghanistan — was set to go into effect. Federal judges have since suspended the ban.
But civil rights advocates say Trump’s position sent a message to U.S. border authorities, who they say have increasingly singled out Muslims for additional scrutiny.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, says it documented a significant increase in complaints of harassment involving U.S. border agents’ treatment of Muslims during Trump’s first 100 days in office, rising from 17 during the same period last year to 193 this year.
“The volume and intensity of these stops and encounters seem to be of a different type than what we’ve seen previously,” said Johnathan Smith, the legal director of Muslim Advocates, another civil rights advocacy group, noting “heightened questioning based on their perceived religion or national origin,” and requests for social media passwords and electronics access.
Abdul’s lawyers — Jason Scott Camilo and Farrin Anello along with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey -- and advocates from the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) say Abdul is a casualty of that profiling. And while he appears to be the first SIV-holder to have lost his visa upon arrival, several others have experienced lengthy airport detentions in the past few months; one family with small children was held at Los Angeles International Airport for four days and was nearly deported before a judge intervened.
“What does it say if you served for years, you go through this whole, long process, and then you finally get here and we put you in jail?” said Becca Heller, IRAP’s director.
More than 40,000 Afghans have benefited from the SIV program since Congress created it in 2007. Successful applicants for the visas must show that they have worked for the United States for at least two years and that they face “an ongoing serious threat” in their home country.
“Thousands of Afghans have put themselves, and their families, at risk to help our soldiers and diplomats accomplish the U.S. mission and return home safely,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a proponent of the program, said in a statement this month after Congress agreed to include an additional 2,500 visas in this year’s budget.
But other lawmakers who have pushed for stricter immigration laws have long tried to curtail the program, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, arguing that the visas are costly and applicants deserve deeper scrutiny. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said he supports giving “immigration relief” to Afghans who served the U.S. government. “Having said that, there must be reasonable limits on these programs, including ensuring the proper vetting of applicants to reduce any abuses of the system,” he said.
Abdul was 9 when the United States military arrived in Afghanistan. His family, ethnic Tajiks from a village outside Kabul, had already moved in an effort to escape the Taliban’s violence. When Abdul was 19, a friend helped him land a job as a waiter in the dining hall on a U.S. military base. He was later promoted to become a cashier at the U.S. Embassy.
But in 2014, the Taliban warned people in his village that harm would come to anyone who worked for the Americans. As Abdul was returning home from work one day, two men pulled up on motorcycles and beat him with a cable in the street. After a close call with a roadside bomb in 2015, his boss, a former U.S. soldier and government contractor, provided him with temporary housing on the U.S. base and helped him apply for a visa.
“It was dangerous for me to be in Afghanistan, so they were happy for me to be safe,” Abdul said of his co-workers when he got the visa.
Abdul’s arrival at Newark quickly turned into an ordeal. On his second night in detention, Abdul said two border agents told him that his visa had not been accepted, and they asked him to sign a sworn statement acknowledging that fact. “I didn’t know what it was, but I signed it,” he said.
The interview transcript, reviewed by The Post, gives no indication of why or when Abdul’s visa was revoked.
Abdul’s lawyers have questioned the document’s accuracy and validity, given his limited understanding of English. Authorities, for example noted that Abdul speaks Pashto when he actually speaks Dari, and they appeared to believe that Abdul planned to stay with his former boss and sponsor, Marion Leon Goins, in Ohio, though a resettlement agency had arranged housing for him elsewhere in the state — a disparity that could have played a role in the outcome.
“Mr. Goins indicated that he was unaware of your arrival to the United States, why would this be the case if you intend to reside with him?” the officer asked, according to the transcript.
Goins told The Post that his conversation with border authorities went very differently.
“They asked me: Did I sponsor him to come over? And I told him, ‘Yeah,’ ” Goins said. “And they told me that they were going to release him.”
Immigration authorities scheduled Abdul for removal from the United States on a flight the following night. A federal judge, responding to an appeal from Abdul’s lawyers, blocked his deportation. At a court hearing Wednesday, Abdul’s lawyers submitted a motion to terminate his case. The government has until June 7 to respond, and Abdul’s next court hearing is scheduled for June 14.
Department of Homeland Security and State Department officials told lawmakers during a recent House Homeland Security Committee hearing that their agencies conduct meticulous vetting of visa applicants, a process that continues up to and through a visa-holder’s arrival. A Customs and Border Protection spokesman told The Post that interviews with passengers upon arrival also are critical aspects of that process: “We rely upon the judgment of our individual CBP officers to use their discretion as to the extent of examination necessary.”