Here’s an interesting puzzle for you: Aslam works 70 hours a week washing cars at a small garage in Washington DC and earns $1,200 a month. His colleague Gonzales, who also washes cars, works only 40 hours a week but earns $2,400 a month. Care to guess why?
Because Aslam is an illegal Pakistani immigrant, while his colleague Gonzales is a naturalised American citizen.
Although the estimated number of illegal Pakistani immigrants varies from state to state, their situation doesn’t. They live in constant fear of being caught and deported. Playing hide-and-seek with law enforcers and immigration authorities is a daily routine. They cannot open a bank account, have health insurance or enjoy any of the social services their legal counterparts take for granted. Their employment opportunities are scarce and risky in a blue-collar job market — and even if they get a job, they have no safeguards against inevitable exploitation.
As political temperatures in the US rise, researchers, politicians and the media have all loudly debated the issue of illegal immigration. A case in point is a recent report in The Washington Post purportedly revealing the involvement of many illegal Latinos in traffic accidents. Latinos also happen to be the largest illegal ethnic group in America.
Even though their numbers are much larger, Latino illegal immigrants enjoy a distinct advantage over Pakistanis: they do not have the stigma of terrorism associated with them. Following 9/11, American law enforcers have been especially wary of illegal, and thus untraceable, Pakistanis living in the US. There are fears that such Pakistanis may fall victim to jihadist indoctrination. Much-criticised sting operations following 9/11 also mostly targeted Muslims of Arab and Asian origin. And following Faisal Shahzad’s failed attempt to bomb Times Square, illegal Pakistanis are law enforcement agency’s favourite targets.
A recent introduction of The Pakistani Temporary Protected Status (TPS) Bill of 2011 to Congress is apparently a positive and very smart move. Sponsored by Democratic Congressman Al Green, the Bill has now been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. It seeks to designate Pakistan as a TPS-eligible country and sets forth related TPS eligibility requirements, including continuous presence in the US since July 22, 2010. If endorsed, the Act shall remain in effect for 12 months. It is another question if Congress will in fact finally endorse the bill and thus risk a backlash from increasingly powerful conservative voters.
The TPS would help the authorities keep track of the illegal Pakistani immigrants. It would make it difficult for illegal Pakistani immigrants to escape from the radar screen, once they report and register their presence in the United States with the authorities.
As the Bill was tabled, Pakistan’s embassy in Washington DC issued a statement praising Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureishi and Ambassador Hussain Haqqani for making it possible. In fact, Ambassador Haqqani is known for his ability to make many things possible… not least of which was President Zardari’s meeting with President Obama last week.
President Zardari’s recent visit to the world’s most important capital was symbolic in nature. He came to attend late US Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke’s memorial service. Earlier, it was unclear if the Pakistani president would be invited to the Oval Office. The two presidents, in the presence of a few others, met for 30 minutes and discussed issues ranging from the ailing economy of Pakistan, the perennial problem of terrorism and the controversial blasphemy law.
President Zardari held another less symbolic but perhaps more important meeting with CIA Director Leon Panetta. The interesting part of the meeting was the presence of ISI Director General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, who was not part of the president’s entourage. It was probably a signal to the vociferous opposition back home that Zardari and the Army are not on a collision course and that the Americans support their union.
But of course, the Pakistani predilection of looking to foreign shores for domestic legitimacy isn’t new.
Back in 1950, when the Cold War was young and the world was choosing sides, we threw in our lot with the US. Since that fateful moment, the Pakistani military establishment and the civilian political leadership have developed a certain mindset, which has been effectively transferred to the citizens thanks to conspiracy theorists and propagandists. It is now almost universally believed that the US is behind every major event and catastrophe in Pakistan. And that no one can rule the country without the blessings of Washington.
Doubts about the legitimacy of the electoral process creates uncertainty. This state of ambivalence distracts both elected leaders and dictators from the ground realities. It’s true that the influence of foreign powers is significant, but it cannot be accepted as the only factor in the rise and fall of the societies or nations. Nonetheless in Pakistan both the leaders and the led seem united in their apparent belief that they are not the masters of their destiny.
Some common perceptions about the role of Americans in Pakistani affairs are interesting and should be noted:
When political turmoil was at its peak in 1977, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto made a whirlwind tour of several Arab countries to prove his popularity in the Arab World to his right-wing political rivals. Despite Bhutto having reached a compromise with his rivals, the seemingly harmless General Ziaul Haq imposed Martial Law. It was widely believed that the Americans hated Bhutto — an ardent advocate of pan-Islamism — and had thus played a part in his removal. But the cool relations between General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorial regime and US president Jimmy Carter’s administration told a different story. It was the obvious antagonism of Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan against the Soviet Union that helped General Zia perpetuate his rule. But then, as the Soviets were on the brink of defeat in Afghanistan, General Zia lost his utility and was removed from the scene… with suspicion once again falling on Washington. Benazir Bhutto formed her government in 1988, again with supposed American blessings. Nawaz Sharif reportedly managed to save his skin from General Musharraf only after President Bill Clinton persuaded Musharraf to let him go. The Americans used General Musharraf till the end and then found a better replacement to continue the War on Terror and attempt to build a favorable public opinion about the Americans in Pakistan.
Clearly, America’s interest in Pakistan is due to the latter’s geographically strategic location and thus isn’t likely to diminish in the next few years — and certainly not before the proposed withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan beginning in 2014. Until then the tone and tenor of Washington and Langley would be closely watched by Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 23rd, 2011.