The New York Times recently reported the disturbing news that Pakistani immigrants to the United States may not feel safe from their government – even when living thousands of miles away from the homeland they departed. The news fits a pattern that shows immigrants often face risks most native-born American may find hard to fathom.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) discovered that Mohammed Tasleem, an attaché in Pakistan’s New York consulate, was engaging in systematic intimidation of Pakistani immigrants and temporary visa holders on behalf of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). “Mr. Tasleem, they discovered, had been posing as an F.B.I. agent to extract information from Pakistanis living in the United States and was issuing threats to keep them from speaking openly about Pakistan’s government,” reports the New York Times. “His activities were part of what government officials in Washington, along with a range of Pakistani journalists and scholars, say is a systematic ISI campaign to keep tabs on the Pakistani diaspora inside the United States.”
The article describes how at conferences and seminars in the U.S. individuals would identify themselves as working for ISI and sometimes ask threatening questions. “The ISI guys will look into your eyes and will indirectly threaten you by introducing themselves,” the author said. “The ISI makes sure that they are present in every occasion relating to Pakistan, and in some cases they pay ordinary Pakistanis for attending events and pass them information.”
That’s not the end of the story. “Several Pakistani journalists and scholars in the United States interviewed over the past week said that they were approached regularly by Pakistani officials, some of whom openly identified themselves as ISI officials,” according to the New York Times. “The journalists and scholars said the officials caution them against speaking out on politically delicate subjects like the indigenous insurgency in Baluchistan or accusations of human rights abuses by Pakistani soldiers. The verbal pressure is often accompanied by veiled warnings about the welfare of family members in Pakistan, they said.”
Here is some free advice for the members of Pakistan’s government: If you don’t want people to accuse Pakistani soldiers of human rights abuses then do your best to make sure such individuals do not abuse human rights. Attempting to intimidate people who now live and work in the United States is counterproductive, making Americans less sympathetic to policy arguments that may be offered by Pakistan.
Visits to international students and scholars by officials of other governments are not unheard of. There are specific provisions in the U.S. immigration code designed to protect asylum seekers who fear repression under China’s one-child policy. Stories of Chinese government officials visiting one or more pregnant Chinese students in the United States helped make the case for such provisions.
It is difficult for immigrants or temporary visa holders to the United States to ignore threats (implied or otherwise) made against family members still living in their homeland. One can imagine the guilt experienced by someone who feels that by exercising the right to freedom of speech in America he or she is putting at risk a family member back home.
Middle Eastern governments are also known to keep tabs on nationals studying or working in the United States, although reports indicate a degree of subtleness in how they deal with such individuals in America. But as with the case of Pakistan, when Americans become aware of attempts to intimidate people working or studying in the U.S. they look unkindly on whichever government is doing the intimidating.