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Homeland Security Separates Couple, Wife Waits in Berkeley

Friday June 20, 2003

The evening of Jan. 6, 2003, was supposed to be a homecoming for Jennifer Medina and Omar Khan. The couple, wed only 15 months before, was returning to the States after spending Christmas with Khan’s family in England. Khan is a 26-year-old British citizen who had just been in his homeland to finish up his college coursework. He was to return to his new home in Berkeley to begin building a life with Medina, a UC Berkeley graduate and local soccer celebrity. He had a public relations job lined up at a local startup animation company, and was considering a high school teaching career.  

Those plans went awry last January. Shortly after Khan exited his plane at San Francisco International Airport, a nightmare began. While filling out his landing card, a regular procedure for non-citizens entering the United States, he asked an Immigration and Naturalization Services official how he should complete part of the form, unsure of how he should answer the question that asked if he was a permanent or nonpermanent resident of the U.S. Far from getting the bit of customer service he politely requested, Khan was promptly taken away to an INS office room inside the airport, where he was interrogated by an INS inspector. 

Khan, the son of an Irish woman and an Indian native who immigrated to England at age 16, said the INS official “didn’t believe I was a British citizen. I told him I have the proper forms, they’re at the immigration office. But he was not willing to check them. He was shouting at me and calling me a liar, and telling me I could get five years in jail and that I would be deported. At some point I said this is borderline racism, you are judging me based on the color of my hair, based on my name. He told me to shut up and if I carried on in the insolent manner he would bring me up on charges.” 

Initially able to travel to the United States on a tourist visa, Khan had obtained an I-131 form, which allows non-resident aliens to be in the U.S. pending a change of status. In Khan’s case, he was in the process of changing his status from a regular British citizen to a British citizen who was in the process of applying for a marriage visa. Khan had also obtained a K-3 form to allow him to stay in the UK for three months—from July to October—in order to finish up his studies in England. The couple obtained another K-3 form in October when they decided to extend his stay so that Medina could spend the holidays with Khan and his family in England. 

What may have heightened suspicion was the fact that he did not have his travel documents with him when he entered the country. Because of a snowstorm in England at the time of their scheduled departure a day earlier, the two were forced to take separate flights. All of Khan’s documentation was with Medina, who was scheduled to arrive at SFO an hour after him. That documentation included their marriage certificate and visa forms from the INS that allowed Khan to leave the States in July 2002 and return in January 2003. 

By the time Medina arrived at SFO and found out where Khan was, he had already signed a statement saying he had failed to get the appropriate documentation to leave and return to the U.S. “It basically said it was all my fault,” said Khan, who spoke to the Daily Planet by telephone from London. “I didn’t want to sign it but he said if I didn’t I would be deported, so I signed it. I know, it’s funny, it sounds like Guatemala and not the U.S.” 

Khan was not deported—that would have required him to be brought up on criminal charges. He was denied entry into the country and put on a plane back to the UK the next day. At the conclusion of his four-hour interrogation, Khan and other immigrant and non-citizens who had been snagged by INS officials that day were escorted out of the airport in handcuffs and ankle shackles. Khan said he was driven in an armored van to the Oakland city jail, where he spent the night.  

The next morning, Khan was transferred to the INS holding cell in San Francisco, where he met up with Medina for the last time before being sent on a plane back to London. Medina says she was “treated roughly” by the INS officials there, and could only talk to her husband for 20 minutes through a glass window over a telephone. “I asked them if I could give him a hug. This was the last time I would see him before his flight back to England, and they said, ‘No you can’t, you have to finish up,’” Medina said. “It was unbelievable. At one point I was like, is this real? This is my husband—what has he done? All of our rights were out the window.” 

Medina and Khan don’t doubt that none of this would have happened had it not been for the Sept. 11 tragedy, and that subsequent changes in INS procedure, including the department’s subsumption into the Department of Homeland Security, has created more bureaucratic obstacles for immigrants and their families.  

Since January, Medina has worked tirelessly to figure out why her husband was denied entry despite their having completed what they were told were the proper forms, and how she can get him to legally return. She’s written letters to the INS, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee pleading for their help. So far, only Lee’s district office has given support, providing her with information that she wasn’t able to get from the INS, like where her forms are in the process and when they are likely to be finalized.  

A request for comment from Lee’s office on Medina’s case was forwarded to the Sacramento office. Spokesman Stuart Chapman said it was policy not to “comment on casework” but said Lee’s office is trying to help the couple out of their “terrible situation.”  

Medina is now hoping to obtain a temporary visa that would allow Khan to come to the United States pending attainment of the marriage visa, which will take a minimum of 12 months. But she is told the chances of getting either visa within a year are slim. “Pedro told me that the INS is going through a very draconian period and that the congresswoman’s hands are tied and that I should hire a lawyer” to help slice through the red tape. “That seems unfair. I’m having to go through the whole process again and pay all the fees to get the forms filled out again. Lawyer’s fees are expensive,” said Medina, who had to move in with family members because she could no longer afford to pay rent at the Berkeley residence at which she and Khan were living. 

Medina’s ordeal is complicated by the fact that she suffers from multiple sclerosis, a condition that worsens during times of stress and sometimes involves daily, two- to four-hour administration of intravenous medicine. The fact that Medina is an active person —she’s both a soccer coach and player — makes flare-ups of her condition particularly burdensome. “Sometimes I wake up and I just can’t move. I just feel like I’m moving through quicksand, and I go, oh no, not one of these days,” she said. 

Medina recently returned from a visit with Khan in England. While there, she attempted to go to the U.S. Embassy in London, only to be turned away. “It used to be you walk in and get a ticket and you can go in and talk with someone,” Khan said. “Now it’s guarded by police with guns, which is surprising to see in London, where the police don’t carry guns. Now they give you a number to call, and the number is just some British operator somewhere. I don’t think that Americans realize to what extent their rights are being taken away.” 

Khan, who has decided to pursue his teaching certificate during his limbo period in the UK, said, “It’s very distressing, very, very difficult, being separated from the woman I love,” and said the lack of clemency for someone who suffers from MS is “barbaric.” 

Medina takes a somewhat softer tone of U.S. policies, but is no less critical. “Right now, it seems like the terrorists have won. They’ve got what they wanted. They wanted to instill all this fear in people and the effect has been to take all the freedoms away that we’ve worked so hard to get,” she said. “People ask me, ‘Well, why don’t you just go to England to be with him?’ But I want to stay here because to me part of being a citizen is to push this country to be what it set out to be, and to let people know what’s going on.” 

Medina’s commitment to stick it out should comfort the players on the Mavericks, the under-15 soccer team in the Alameda-Contra Costa County soccer league that she has coached for two years. The members of that close-knit club, which went undefeated this season and is preparing to participate in the national 5-aside championships in Anaheim this July, say they worry that Khan’s dilemma will take Medina away from them. One player, Alina Schnake-Mahl, said, “We don’t want her to lose her as a coach. Before she came we had a lot of really bad coaches. She really brought our team together.”