One of the first times Muhammad was harassed for being Muslim ― and there were many times ― was in his home country of Tajikistan. He was 23 years old. It was August 2014, and he’d returned home from Russia, where he was living and working, for his upcoming wedding. One day while out shopping, he was stopped by the Tajik KGB, who brought him in for questioning.
At their offices, Muhammad says, he was interrogated for nearly six hours, verbally abused and accused of being an anti-government extremist, simply because he was Muslim. The men set fire to his beard.
They visited Muhammad a few months later at his home, he says, where they again accused him of being an extremist. He was beaten, slapped in the face and threatened with arrest on religious extremism charges. From there he fled to Russia, where he encountered yet more anti-Muslim harassment.
In 2020, Muhammad ― along with his wife, Aida, and their children ― eventually made it to Mexico, where he hoped they could gain entry to the United States and seek asylum there. But he found himself detained again and separated from his family, this time by the Trump administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Muhammad” and “Aida” are pseudonyms; the immigration advocacy group RAICES has shared Muhammad’s full name with HuffPost for the purposes of our investigation. HuffPost has agreed to use aliases in light of the fact that the family’s asylum case is still ongoing.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to increase refugee admissions to 125,000, a group expected to include many people fleeing violence, humanitarian crises and persecution ― people like Muhammad and his family. The order is Biden’s first step in rebuilding the country’s refugee program after a series of blows implemented by former President Donald Trump, who spent years demonizing refugees and who cut admissions to a record low cap of 15,000. Some experts and advocates have applauded Biden for taking the first step to restoring admissions, but he still faces a series of challenges to undo the years of damage.
It is unclear how many Muslims like Muhammad are currently in detention, as ICE does not keep track of immigrants based on religion. However, Muslim detainees across the country have reported and sued over religious maltreatment, including being forced to eat pork and being denied prayer services or the right to head covering.
The Intersection Of Immigration And Islamophobia
In June 2020, Muhammad and his family presented themselves at a U.S. port of entry, seeking asylum. They were apprehended by immigration authorities and processed at Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, Muhammad told HuffPost via a translator in January.
The family was interviewed by an asylum officer who determined they had a positive credible fear, the first step needed in an asylum application to establish that an individual faces persecution or torture back in their country of origin. The family was due to be released after the findings, but immigration officials only released Aida, who was pregnant at the time, and their children. Muhammad was denied release and transferred to an adult detention center in Laredo, Texas. Officials told him they needed to verify more information.
But according to his lawyers, immigration officials suspected Muhammad of posing a danger to the community for the same reason he was persecuted to begin with: He was Muslim.
The pervasive influence of Islamophobia in the American immigration system has compounded into a series of challenges for Muslim immigrants like Muhammad, who say they are not given a chance to prove their asylum cases because of preconceived notions about their faith.
For decades, Muslim immigrants have been targeted by structural and institutional barriers implemented through immigration laws, which were only amplified in the post-9/11 era. Issues of racial profiling and religious discrimination were further exacerbated from 2017 onward, as Trump put anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment at the center of his presidency. And while Biden has taken the first steps to reverse many of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, researchers and experts say the damage has already been done, and may take months if not years to undo.
“Islam is viewed as inherently inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States, which means that Islam is not viewed as a religion or a faith, but as a race and a hostile political ideology, rather than the diverse ethnic and racial identities that Muslims hold,” said Nahid Soltanzadeh, a digital organizer at MPower Change, a grassroots Muslim-led advocacy organization.
Muslim immigrants are automatically seen as potential risks, rather than human beings fleeing persecution, Soltanzadeh said, making it more challenging for immigrants like Muhammad to contend with a system that is biased against them.
“[Immigration officials] decided that the persecution that he suffered made him a national security threat and a potential terrorist threat ― which was very, very alarming, because that was the abuse that he was suffering and that was how they were persecuting him as a young Muslim man,” said Nicole Morgan, associate attorney in the family detention division of RAICES, who is representing the family.
The excess of misinformation concerning immigration and Islamophobia, particularly under the Trump administration, made it nearly impossible for asylum-seekers to have a fair chance in immigration court and with the public, Morgan said. Meanwhile, the increased power granted to ICE and immigration authorities allowed them to act on preconceived notions with impunity.
“The average American doesn’t even know who these people are, because they’re being fed a lie and a misrepresentation of our clients,” Morgan said. “If they met them or even heard a tenth of their story, they would open their homes to them, let alone our country.”
The Crackdown On Religious Freedoms Escalates
Human rights and religious freedoms have had a volatile history in Tajikistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, involving issues of media censorship, a crackdown on government critics and the country’s uneasy relationship with its own Islamic roots. Over the years, the government has made various attempts to restrict religious practice.
In 2009, the government passed a law formalizing a ban on female students wearing the hijab. In 2011, authorities banned anyone under 18 years of age from attending any kind of religious service. The government began to close down unregistered mosques throughout the country.
According to the State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. government has recognized the pervasive harassment Muslims face in Tajikistan and the curtailing of religious freedoms there. In 2016, the report designated Tajikistan a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act, a status it has held through the publication of the 2019 report, the most recent.
The State Department’s report for Russia is no better, noting that the Russian government has the power to prohibit the activity of religious associations for “violating public order or engaging in ‘extremist activity.’”
The human rights situation in Tajikistan took a turn for the worse after the government banned an opposition party in 2015 and declared it a terrorist organization without credible evidence, according to Human Rights Watch.
The government perceived devout Muslims as being associated with political groups that threatened the power of the current government, said Syinat Sultanalieva, the Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Authorities harassed women wearing hijabs and men with beards. Mosques and religious centers were subjected to police raids, surveillance and forced closures ― an attempt by government officials to regulate Islam for extremist activities, despite outcry from critics that such regulations were politically motivated and a clear violation of personal religious freedoms.
Once Muhammad heard rumors that the government was targeting his local mosque amid its crackdown, he stopped going, fearing retaliation. In 2013, those rumors were proven true after police raided his sister’s home, arrested his sister and her wife, and shut down their center. By then, Muhammad had just moved to Russia, where he was a dual citizen, looking for safety and work.
Fleeing To Russia
In November 2014, Muhammad and Aida moved to Russia, but even there the harassment by the Tajik officials didn’t stop. Muhammad says the men frequently visited his parents’ home, demanding they call their son and coerce him back to Tajikistan.
But Muhammad couldn’t return. He knew he’d be arrested immediately, he said. He changed his number to evade the Tajik security forces’ calls and threats. He found work as a delivery driver in 2015 for a dairy company. Aida gave birth to a daughter in October 2015, and a son in October 2017. For a while, life became normal again.
One November evening in 2017, Muhammad and Aida held an Islamic baby shower, a welcoming ceremony traditionally held after a birth, with close friends and family. Two hours into the celebration, Russian police officers showed up and told them their religious ceremony was against the law. The officers searched the house and the guests and arrested Muhammad and Aida.
The couple was interrogated. Aida, who did not speak Russian, was forced to sign a document admitting she violated public order. She was released, but Muhammad was held several more days and interrogated about his Islamic beliefs. Russian police confiscated his Quran as supposed evidence of his extremism, an allegation that Muhammad found astonishing.
Muhammad says he was slapped, shocked with a stun gun and deprived of sleep over the course of three days by Russian authorities who accused him of wanting to join and recruit for ISIS ― all of which he vehemently denied. He handed over his cellphone and social media login information, in hopes that the police would clear him of wrongdoing.
Eventually, Muhammad signed papers he was not allowed to read, and was released. But the harassment didn’t stop. He says Russian police tracked him everywhere he went, calling every month demanding to know his whereabouts. They showed up at his house and searched it without a warrant. Law enforcement and members of the Russian government stopped him in the streets and asked him who he was visiting. They were always watching, they told him.
In March 2018, Muhammad says, he was taken again to the police station, where he was handcuffed with other men who he assumes were also Muslim. He watched the police beat these men and drag them out of the room. He never saw the men again.
Muhammad was also beaten and shocked several times, he says. The officers accused him again of being an ISIS member. Muhammad denied the accusations and told them he denounced extremism in all forms. After days of interrogation and torture, Muhammad was coerced into signing more paperwork and was eventually released.
Deniz Yuksel, Turkey advocacy specialist at Amnesty International USA, told HuffPost that the Russian government has persecuted religious minorities like Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that Muhammad’s case dovetails with what is known about the deterioration of religious freedom there.
The crackdown on religious minority groups is “part of a broader attack by the government on communities and ideologies that they believe are either in opposition to them directly politically, or opposition to the traditional Orthodox Christian values,” Yuksel said.
The police never stopped harassing and torturing Muhammad, who tried to clear his name each time he was apprehended. He says he filed a complaint against the officers who tortured him, without any success. Instead, the harassment escalated. The police continued to search his home unexpectedly. He began to receive calls from unknown numbers, from people who spewed Islamophobic insults at him and mocked his Tajik background.
“They never left us to live peacefully. Always calling, always watching,” said Aida, who told HuffPost she knew they were targeted due to their Muslim faith.
“Especially because we were practicing Muslims. My husband had a beard and I wore a scarf, so you can clearly see that we are practicing Muslims,” she said. She was worried that any day her husband would be taken away and unfairly jailed.
In August 2018, Aida’s Russian residency was canceled, and was only reinstated after the couple hired a lawyer. They moved to a new city, hoping to evade police, but were eventually found. During the last round of threatening calls and visits, members of law enforcement told Muhammad that sooner or later, he was going to be put in jail for extremism ― in retaliation for the complaint he’d filed against them.
It was at that moment that Muhammad realized he couldn’t stay in Russia any longer. In August 2019, Muhammad, Aida and their two children abandoned everything they had and began their journey to Mexico ― and to their final destination, America.
Fighting For His Health During COVID-19
Although most migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border are from Central America or Mexico, there has been an increase of migrants from other continents. According to numbers gathered by the Mexican government, more than 670,000 migrants from Asia entered Mexico through legal ports of entry in 2019. Most extra-continental migrants arrive in Central and South American countries due to their lax visa requirements, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan immigration think tank.
Muhammad and his family arrived in Mexico in August 2019, where they were detained by Mexican immigration for three months. Via a translator, Aida told HuffPost the conditions in the detention facility were unbearable for her and her children. She was separated from her husband, and one of her children got sick from the lack of heat and hot water, she says.
After they were released from detention, they rented an apartment for six months and worked to save money. In June 2020, they crossed into America at the Calexico Port of Entry, seeking asylum. The family was processed at Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, and a month later, Aida and the children were released. Muhammad, however, was detained and transferred to the Laredo Detention Center.
Suffering from kidney malfunction and stomach pains, Muhammad’s health grew worse in detention. He was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, diabetes and a possible autoimmune disorder, according to his lawyers. His kidney pain became more severe, and he dealt with urinary incontinence, weight loss and bladder pain. Each time, he was only given painkillers and not treated for the underlying conditions. In July, Muhammad tested positive for the coronavirus.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care,” an ICE spokesperson told HuffPost in an emailed statement. “Comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in custody.”
Detainees with medical conditions “can expect timely and appropriate responses to emergent medical requests, and timely medical care appropriate to the anticipated length of detention,” the spokesperson wrote.
Muhammad told HuffPost that he was served pork ― which many Muslims don’t eat, in accordance with their faith ― and denied halal food, often forcing him to go without a meal, which exacerbated his health conditions.
“Him being a young Muslim man and the Islamophobia that has just permeated our politics and our immigration system, he is absolutely suffering from that,” said Morgan, the RAICES attorney. “[The U.S. government] has no evidence or even a credible reason to believe he’s a threat to the United States, but yet they’re treating him with such hostility.”
The ICE spokesperson told HuffPost that people “held at the centers receive three meals daily using menus developed by a registered dietician, who ensure individual unique health (included allergies), dietary, and religious needs are met.”
Muhammad was denied parole four times in 2020 ― once in July, twice in October and again in December. Aida was worried constantly. “We thought this would be the safest place where we could come and find our protection,” she told HuffPost.
The couple spoke on the phone nearly every day, Muhammad from detention and Aida from a San Antonio church that was sponsoring her and her children and giving them a place to stay. In January, Aida gave birth to their third child, a baby girl, without her husband by her side. Their 5-year-old daughter and their 3-year-old son asked their mother every day where their father was. She didn’t know how to answer them, so the children started to ask members of the church.
“My kids are suffering. It’s stress and constant torture to not know where their father is,” Muhammad said. “It’s painful for me to know that my kids think I’ve disappeared.”
Searching For Home
On Friday, Feb. 5, Muhammad received a note telling him to call his lawyer. His heart sank. He thought something was wrong ― either with his case or his family.
But his lawyers had good news: He was being released.
At first, he couldn’t believe what he’d heard. The news shocked him to the point where he was physically unable to speak and his lawyer thought the line had disconnected. Instead of talking, Muhammad broke down in sobs.
A few days later, Muhammad was released and made his way to the San Antonio shelter to reunite with his family. As he approached, he saw his son playing with toys, but his son didn’t recognize him. Soon, Aida came sprinting over. The couple embraced for the first time in months. Neither of them spoke between the hugs and kisses. They couldn’t find the words.
Between congratulations from members of the church and shelter, and after downing a glass of fruit juice, Muhammad met his newborn daughter for the first time. He held her in his arms and apologized tearfully to her, over and over, for missing her birth. He swore to her, and the rest of his children, to make up for the lost time. He promised his elder daughter he would teach her how to draw and paint ― a new hobby she has picked up. He promised Aida he would never leave her side again.
ICE confirmed to HuffPost that Muhammad was released on Feb. 8, but did not elaborate on his case or explain what prompted the sudden change.
Muhammad, now 30, said he hopes immigration officials will finally view his faith as a religion like any other and not believe the xenophobic stereotypes. After all, he said, it was his faith that kept him hopeful during his time in detention.
“We’re glad that pressure from the public and a coalition of advocates in support of [Muhammad] has forced ICE to make the right decision and release him to be with his family,” said Laila Ayub, the special projects attorney at RAICES’ family detention services program.
“Nonetheless, [Muhammad]’s case is an example of the xenophobia, Islamophobia, criminalization, and family separation inherent to immigration enforcement,” Ayub said. “The immigration system, even under the Biden administration, permits ICE to justify the detention of someone like [Muhammad] under the guise of national security. ICE’s analysis of public safety and national security is a superficial one rooted in white supremacy, and people like [Muhammad] are still at risk of detention and deportation even under the Biden administration’s new enforcement policies.”
For now, Muhammad says he feels “bottomless gratitude” for his lawyers, the church members who cared for his family, and others. He wants to thank them “for giving me my life back and giving my children their father back.”