After Three Years in a Church Facing Deportation, ‘Today I Have Freedom’

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A second-floor window afforded Saheeda Nadeem glimpses of a city park, but she did not dare go for walks — it could have exposed her to deportation.

So could visiting her daughter’s grave. Since 2018, Ms. Nadeem, an undocumented immigrant, had faced the specter of being forced to return to her native Pakistan under the hard-line immigration policies of the Trump administration.

Even routine doctor visits turned into house calls, home being First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo, Mich., which provided Ms. Nadeem with sanctuary from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

The three-year ordeal seemingly came to an end on Wednesday, when Ms. Nadeem learned that she had been granted an order of supervision by the federal immigration authorities and no longer faced deportation, a lawyer for her said.

Those who worked on the case of Ms. Nadeem, who they said had unknowingly overstayed her visa, attributed the reversal in her protracted standoff with ICE to the new policies of the Biden administration.

“Today I have freedom,” Ms. Nadeem said in a video, posted on Facebook on Wednesday by the nonprofit Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, in which she thanked President Biden.

Ms. Nadeem, a 65-year-old caregiver and mother, traveled to Grand Rapids, Mich., on Wednesday to meet with immigration enforcement officers. It was her first meaningful venture in three years outside the confines of the church she has called home and where parishioners brought her groceries.

“She was quite nervous about it,” Susan E. Reed, managing attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said in an interview on Wednesday night.

In addition to granting her an order of supervision, the federal immigration authorities agreed to expedite Ms. Nadeem’s application for a U visa, Ms. Reed said.

The U visa program, created in 2000, provides undocumented immigrants with temporary legal residency and a path to American citizenship if they cooperate with law enforcement officials after being a victim of or a witness to violent crimes, among them domestic violence and sexual assault.

Ms. Reed said she could not elaborate on how Ms. Nadeem had become eligible for the visa program or discuss whether she had been a crime victim.

ICE officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday night.

The Rev. Nathan Dannison, the senior pastor of First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo, said in an interview on Wednesday night that parish members had decided that the church should become what is known as an immigrant welcoming congregation after Donald J. Trump was elected president in 2016. ICE typically does not conduct raids at houses of worship, which the agency has designated as “sensitive locations.”

It was not the first time the church in Kalamazoo had offered someone safe harbor.

“We willfully violated the Fugitive Slave Act in 1851,” Mr. Dannison said.

In 2018, the church learned of the predicament of Ms. Nadeem, who is Muslim and had previously worked as a servant in Kuwait. She hasn’t been to Pakistan in 40 years, according to a post by her son on the church’s website.

Her application for asylum had been denied after she came to the United States in the mid-2000s.

“We thought that was unimaginable,” Mr. Dannison said, “because she was a model citizen of Kalamazoo. But they said, ‘This is a new administration, and things are changing.’”

The church created a 200-square-foot apartment in the basement for Ms. Nadeem, who Mr. Dannison said had become an instrumental member of the parish and is known by the nickname Auntie. Ms. Nadeem cared for people with developmental disabilities and worked with refugees in the community, according to the church.

“We believe that God protected her and all of us,” Mr. Dannison said. “Our church kitchen became her home kitchen. Every day she would serve tea. She would receive visitors.”

Ms. Nadeem even carried a candle during Christmas services, he said.

“So she became part of our life, and she will always be part of our life,” Mr. Dannison said.

The pastor eventually gave up his office so that Ms. Nadeem would have more comfortable living quarters, Ms. Reed said.

Ms. Reed said there were two other undocumented immigrants still living in churches in Michigan.

Across the country, about 40 people are now cloistered in churches, a practice that long predates the Trump administration, according to an official at the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which helps asylum seekers.

But the length of their time in sanctuary stretched longer and longer as the Trump administration changed immigration laws to make it more difficult to get asylum.

Ms. Reed said that while many churches had offered to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, the lifestyle of isolation and uncertainty discouraged many people from choosing that path.

“It’s just unrealistic for most people to move into a church indefinitely,” she said.

Mr. Dannison said Ms. Nadeem was hoping to have her own home again in Kalamazoo and to return to work. It will be an adjustment for both her and the parishioners who are so used to her presence.

“She felt like it was a beautiful prison,” he said.

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