Efforts of wife, friends help free Waco man from immigration detention
By J.B. SMITH
Sunday February 12, 2012
For nearly a year, Nazry Mustakim woke at 4:30 each morning with a detention center guard banging on his bunk bed.
When he woke Wednesday next to his wife, Hope, in their North Waco home, he was astounded to realize he is a free man.
His immigration nightmare is over, almost as quickly as it had begun March 30, 2011, at the crack of dawn.
Also at an end is his wife’s tireless campaign — with wristbands, letter-writing chains and “Free Naz” T-shirts — to keep him from being deported to his native Singapore because of 7-year-old drug charges.
“My wife woke up at 8 or 9 and tickled me,” said Mustakim, who goes by Naz. “I jumped up, trying to make sure I was still at home, that it wasn’t a dream. I felt relief. Thank God, there was my wife beside me.”
Naz Mustakim, 32, was discharged Tuesday, after a North Texas prosecutor agreed to dismiss the 2007 felony drug case that seemingly earned him a one-way ticket to Singapore.
He arrived in Waco to a warm welcome from friends and supporters, some of whom staged a surprise party for him at an Italian restaurant on Wednesday.
“We’re so excited to have Naz back,” said Jimmy Dorrell, director of Mission Waco, who has known him for years. “His story has been incredible. He has succeeded in recovery like few others. . . . We feel God has been very good in this case to make sure that he gets to stay. If anyone deserves grace and mercy it was Naz.”
‘What just happened?’
Mustakim has been a legal permanent resident of this country since he came here with his mother at age 13, settling in semi-rural Valley View in North Texas.
But when he got his green card renewed a couple of years ago, it tipped off federal authorities of his criminal record. He had been arrested in 2005 on charges of possessing and selling drugs and had pleaded guilty in exchange for 10 years probation.
It didn’t matter that by all accounts he had turned his life around.
He had moved to Waco for rehab, gotten a degree at Texas State Technical College and married a Baylor University social work student. He became a devout Christian, served homeless men through his job at Mission Waco and dreamed with his wife of creating a charity for needy Waco children.
But federal law is clear: Naz Mustakim had an aggravated felony on his record, which meant automatic deportation to his native country, where he is practically a stranger.
At 6:30 a.m. March 30, 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in bulletproof vests knocked on the door of the new brick home the Mustakims had just bought on North 12th Street. Hope watched, bleary-eyed, as ICE agents led her husband away in handcuffs.
“I was standing in the front yard holding the dog, saying, ‘What the hell just happened?’ ” she said.
Naz Mustakim was on his way to a detention facility in Pearsall. But neither he nor his wife realized the severity of his situation until Hope talked to attorneys and law enforcement officers.
A field officer from ICE told her that her chances of bringing her husband home were slim to none, she said.
‘We love Waco’
“I started thinking, ‘Am I going to have to go to college in Singapore?’ ” said Hope Mustakim, 26, a Baylor senior and native of southern Louisiana. “ ‘Would we have to sell the house?’ But I thought, ‘We love Waco, and we want to stay in Waco, and we’ve got to fight this.’ ”
With that resolve, she hired a San Antonio immigration attorney and began organizing her “Free Naz” campaign.
Friends from Waco and elsewhere contributed to his legal defense and packed immigration hearings for Naz Mustakim in Pearsall. About 1,300 people from around the country signed a petition in support of his release.
Hope Mustakim lost her husband’s income. He had been working at a Waco call center as a tech support specialist for the Nissan Leaf electric car.
A full-time student, she tried to pay the mortgage by teaching Zumba classes and leading worship at her church, Life Church. She dug into her student loans and ran up credit card bills and accepted help from friends.
A cheery, outgoing young woman, she said she was diagnosed with depression stemming from her situation.
In June, a judge denied “humanitarian parole” in the case. The only shot Naz had left was to challenge the criminal case that got him into trouble in the first place.
Fighting for freedom
In late summer, his attorneys filed documents to challenge his original drug conviction, asking Cooke County prosecutors to reopen the case. They cited a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that defense attorneys must clearly spell out to their clients the immigration consequences of a plea.
They said Naz Mustakim didn’t get that information and didn’t realize that pleading to an aggravated felony would result in automatic deportation.
By the time of the 2007 plea deal, Naz Mustakim was well into recovery. He said he was thrilled to get probation and saw it as a fresh start.
In 2009, he fell in love with Hope while they were both working at My Brother’s Keeper, Mission Waco’s homeless shelter. The amiable Singapore immigrant and the outgoing Cajun woman found themselves chatting and laughing almost instantly.
“We hit it off right away,” Hope Mustakim said. “We joked about getting married at the end of the summer.”
Hope Mustakim had seen drug abuse and recovery in her own family, and she wasn’t put off by his past.
“Even knowing the worst of what he did, it didn’t make me doubt his heart,” she said. “I was looking for evidence of real recovery, and I saw it.”
The couple married in 2010 and settled down in North Waco to spend the rest of their lives serving the poor and troubled.
Power of faith
Hope Mustakim’s faith in Naz was matched only by her faith that he would be released. She said Dorrell, of Mission Waco, urged her to think of a Plan B in case he was deported.
“I said, ‘Nope, he’s not going to get deported,’ ” she said. “People would say, ‘You’re in denial.’ But it was a faith thing. I chose to believe there would be a way out.”
Upon receiving the defense’s challenge to the drug charges, Cooke County District Attorney Janice Warder agreed Mustakim had not been adequately warned of the immigration consequences. A former Dallas County district judge, she had become district attorney after the plea bargain and was not involved in it.
She agreed to reopen the case, but was not at first willing to dismiss it.
“When I first pulled up the case, I thought, ‘This is one we need to retry,’ ” Warder said. “It was a bad offense and the person looked like a really bad person. But then I started hearing all the input, all the letters from people in Waco.”
A little before Christmas, Warder received a letter from Hope Mustakim describing her husband’s transformation. Warder, who ran a drug court for six years, was moved to tears.
The same day, she got word from the county sheriff’s department: The evidence in Nazry Mustakim’s drug case could not be found.
Warder said she decided to drop the case not because of Mustakim’s changed life but because there wasn’t enough evidence left to take the case back to court. But she said the letters and calls assured her the outcome was both just and merciful.
“Legally, my decision would have been the same, but I’ve got to say this was a case where I really, truly believed in his rehabilitation,” she said. “I saw so much evidence that I really believe he is a different man. This is one I don’t feel bad about.”
Warder filed a motion to dismiss the felony Jan. 19.
She said she was touched by a recent thank-you letter from Naz Mustakim, expressing his regret for past mistakes and his resolve to never take his freedom for granted.
Warder said Mustakim likely can expunge the charges from his criminal record. But, he still has two misdemeanor marijuana convictions for which he already has served probation.
Those lesser drug charges held up his release from immigration custody until this week, when immigration authorities cleared him to leave.
God’s ongoing work
When Hope Mustakim arrived Tuesday in Pearsall to pick up her husband, she saw him walking down the road with a trash bag full of his belongings, followed by three other men.
When they reunited, he explained that the men, from Nepal and India, also were released but needed rides. The Mustakims dropped the men off in San Antonio and Austin.
Naz Mustakim said he couldn’t believe he was free until he saw Waco with his own eyes.
Mustakim said his time locked up was confusing, lonely and frightening, but he sees it as part of God’s ongoing work on him.
“I was given a new life a long time ago, but this is just a trial of more refining,” he said. “I most definitely grew as a person and came out a better man.”
Hope and Naz Mustakim long have dreamed of starting a ministry in Waco, perhaps offering a home for neglected teens. Now they also want to reach out to families facing immigration trouble.
In detention, Naz Mustakim became friends with immigrants from all around the world, including many good people who had no one to advocate for them. He said he will try to help some of them.
“It hit me today while I was driving around,” he said. “The feeling came over me that I’m free but there’s still other people inside.”