The student body president at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies - a Pakistani engineer who has been in the United States for 11 years - is facing possible deportation next month because of an immigration mix-up that he blames on advice he got from university officials.
Zaid Safdar has obtained two college degrees in this country and worked six years at Bell Labs. He is scheduled for a deportation hearing June 5, when an immigration judge will consider the recent denial of Safdar's request to exchange his employment visa for a student visa.
Immigration authorities denied the request on the grounds that Safdar, 30, did not file it until after he started attending the prestigious school in Washington late last summer. In the government's view, he has been in the United States illegally as a student without the proper visa since leaving his job at Bell Labs to attend SAIS.
Safdar, who spent a night in jail in March over the mix-up, says an international student adviser at SAIS told him when he was accepted last spring to wait until after he enrolled at the school to apply for the change in visa status.
He says the university filed the request on his behalf soon after he started the two-year master's program in August.
When his request for a student visa was denied last month, Safdar asked Hopkins officials to confirm that they had given him that advice. He says he thought that would help immigration authorities understand why he had been late.
But Hopkins officials have declined to provide an affidavit confirming his account, and he faces possible deportation next month.
"The initial stance of the school was that they acknowledged a mistake ... but they have changed that stance," Safdar said yesterday. "I am surprised and deeply disappointed."
Hopkins officials said yesterday that they won't provide an affidavit because the adviser disputes having told Safdar to wait to file his visa request.
"The person involved would not verify his story," said university general counsel Estelle Fishbein. "He has no right to expect an affidavit which recites matters not in accord with the person's recollection."
Most of Hopkins' many foreign students comply with immigration rules, university officials added, saying that makes it unlikely an adviser would be giving out poor advice.
"An individual is responsible for his own filing" for a visa change, Fishbein said. "To my knowledge, our advisers are trained people and give accurate assistance."
While disagreeing about the nature of the advice Safdar received, he and university officials agree that his problem is owed partly to stepped-up enforcement of immigration rules for student visa holders since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Sameer M. Ashar, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the rules for requesting a new visa status have not changed since the attacks.
But enforcement by the agency once known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now part of the Homeland Security Department, has become more strict.
"If you're going to school on a work visa, it's a technical violation, and the INS is more aggressive deporting on technical violations because of the environment," he said. "There's no question that the INS takes a second and third look at people from some countries."
Safdar discovered this March 20, when he reported to register with immigration officials, as all temporary residents from Pakistan and certain other countries had to do by March 21.
He says he explained to officials that his request for a change in visa status was being processed, but he was arrested anyway for being in the country without a proper visa.
Safdar says he was handcuffed and taken to a jail in Stafford, Va., where he was released on $1,500 bail at 3 the next morning.
Three weeks later, he learned his request for the visa change had been denied.
Hopkins officials noted that they have offered Safdar some support: A SAIS administrator helped bail him out of jail, they said, and the school's dean has written a letter to federal authorities on Safdar's behalf, stating he is a student in good standing.
They have also told Safdar that he could attend the SAIS branch in Bologna, Italy, if he is deported.
Feels singled out
Safdar is dismissive of this support. The letter of recommendation would have been stronger if it had Hopkins President William R. Brody's signature on it, he says. And he says it's hard to take solace in the Bologna option because he has lived in the United States for more than a decade and is enjoying school here.
More broadly, Safdar said he doesn't understand why he has been singled out for deportation. After obtaining a bachelor's degree on a full scholarship at the University of Rochester and a master's in engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, then working at Bell Labs, he says he exemplifies the best of foreigners in the United States.
Safdar, who lives in Washington, noted with irony that his decision to leave Bell Labs and attend SAIS was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, the event he now sees as contributing to his troubles. With an additional degree, he says, he would like to put his engineering skills to work in the international arena.
Being elected president of the 500-member SAIS student body for next year had made him feel even more rooted in the country, he says. While most of his relatives are still in Pakistan, he says his younger sister is the chief resident at the Yale Medical School.
"I have enormous gratitude for the opportunities I've had in this country. I feel I represent exactly what the U.S. is about - diversity, inclusion, a success story of someone who came to this country and did good," he said. "I am one person who should not be run out of the country."