Story by Rewon Shimray | Photos by Olivia Haskin
Hope Mustakim grew up in a Louisiana home and prosperity gospel church. Until 2011, her exposure to immigration policy and its effects was limited.
Mustakim’s first experience with immigration policy was that of her husband Nazry Mustakim, when four Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers showed up at their door to take him to a local detention center to eventually be deported. After this event, she witnessed immigrants “praying and begging and hoping” against deportation only to inevitably be found by ICE. She realized she could no longer hold onto her traditional roots.
“We can’t just sit around and say it works out for people. If we don’t do our job, it doesn’t,” Mustakim said. “It’s not just politics, not just policy. It’s people.”
Mustakim now directs the Waco Immigrants Alliance (WIA), a community group that advocates for immigrants through public education initiatives, deportation defense campaigns and other assistive services.
Mustakim said the Waco community became aware of WIA’s services in February 2017, when WIA was featured on the front page of the Waco Tribune-Herald. WIA received recognition for their first public campaign for Waco resident Juan Ceda, a 19-year-old father of two toddlers. Ceda was detained in an immigration lockup for dropped charges of domestic violence from 2015.
After the story ran, Mustakim received an influx of messages on Facebook from people looking for help, fearing their own immigration status. Mustakim said Ceda’s case demonstrated that WIA was an organization “that will defend people who have blemishes on their record.”
Since 2017, WIA has helped with five deportation defense cases in which public protest, petition and fundraising were used to advocate for the individual’s right to stay in the U.S.
Mustakim said WIA prefers to take on projects pertaining to immigrants with misdemeanors and old charges. The projects typically include public campaigns, social media coverage, fundraising for an attorney, recruitment of prominent voices and public demonstrations. The deportation defense campaign model that Mustakim uses comes from the Workers Defense Project and has a national 85 percent success rate.
“Any time you have public support, ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is a lot less likely to deport someone,” Mustakim said. “Half of it hinges on your legal representation. Half of it is how much community support you have—how much attention you can bring to it. ICE operates in stealth mode.”
In February 2017, Mustakim participated in a protest of about 60 people at a Republican Party of McLennan County fund raiser featuring Gov. Greg Abbott. Mustakim said WIA wanted to protest Abbott’s support of President Trump’s Executive Order 13769, known as the “Muslim travel ban,” signed at the end of January 2017. The protesters were repeatedly asked to step back from the event, but the group stood their ground.
“There are times when you have to stand in the face of authority and respectfully say no,” Mustakim said.
Waco Chief of Police Ryan Holt later apologized for infringing on the protesters’ First Amendment rights and said the department “was committed to the situation not happening again.”
“Risk is necessary to communicate such a strong position and commitment to something,” Mustakim said.
Mustakim said voluntary insecurity communicates to people in authority and the general public that there is something important happening.
“Any time you increase risk, it increases impact,” she said.
Mustakim said one of the biggest challenges in directing WIA is mobilizing people. She said she often feels as if there are not enough people or resources to make significant change.
Mely Galan, WIA volunteer coordinator and translator and McLennan Community College student, said she has observed a cultural “split” in Waco. Galan said the existence of organizations like WIA make a difference, but President Donald Trump’s inauguration still caused “panic among immigrants.”
Meanwhile, according to Galan, other Wacoans are ignorant to problems related to immigration law. Mustakim and Galan said immigration policy issues are neglected by most people who are not affected by it.
“There is cognitive dissonance there. Because you can’t imagine that [immigration policy issues are] so unjust. Your brain can’t process it,” Mustakim said.
Part of WIA’s mission is to address the reality of immigrants’ situations through guest speakers, film screenings and panel discussions. Mustakim said she often has to debunk the subliminal idea that people cross the border simply because they are “morally defunct.” She said she regularly engages in dialogue that challenges Americans’ predispositions about immigration.
“How bad would it be for you to take your child across a desert and a river? Because you are not any more moral than a Mexican person,” Mustakim said. “You are not risking your child’s life. Why do you think they are? What would it take for you to do it?”
60.57 percent of McLennan County voters voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Mustakim said Waco’s conservative culture often “stunts activism” because immigration has become a partisan issue.
“People who believe in welcoming strangers and kindness and generosity and hospitality are being frozen because they’re being told their religious affiliation may align with quote unquote ‘conservatism,’ which has kind of hijacked the narrative,” Mustakim said.
The influence of partisanship is evident in the fact that 62.37 percent of ballots cast in McLennan County in the 2016 primary election were straight party votes.
“I want people to know that they have the freedom to step out of the box,” Mustakim said. “Follow your own intuition and conviction about the humanity of people and the complexity of issues like immigration.”
Mustakim said WIA seeks to create cross-cultural bridges with “people who don’t normally associate outside of their homogeneous, racial, religious, socioeconomic groups.”
“I try to backtrack and unwrap how I got to this place. It was knowing people going through it. It was seeing the truth of policy and knowing I was able to make a difference,” Mustakim said. “If you don’t know you can make a difference, you don’t try. You just withdraw and say there is nothing you can do.”
Mustakim’s first experience with immigration policy was in March 2011 when four Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers came to take her husband to a local detention center to eventually be deported. Mustakim said watching them take away her husband was the most traumatic moment of her life.
Her husband Nazry Mustakim, nicknamed Naz, is a Singapore native and has lived in the U.S. with a green card since his adolescence. Naz was arrested in 2005 for drug possession, for which he had pleaded guilty and served 10-year probation.
After Nazry Mustakim’s probation, he rehabilitated at Mission Waco’s Manna House and graduated from Texas State Technical College. He volunteered with Mission Waco and Church Under the Bridge to share his story with others struggling with drug addiction.
Mustakim said his legal counsel never informed him that his felony violated his green card, which led to his detainment seven years after his arrest.
“The crummy part about it was, why would you deport someone who is now giving back so much?” Hope Mustakim said. “He was a textbook example of someone who was a drug addict, then turned around to contribute to society.”
During his 10-month detention in the South Texas Detention Facility in Pearsall, Texas, Hope Mustakim started the “Free Naz” campaign with a Facebook group titled “Support Naz,” in addition to a website and distributable merchandise. She also gathered over 1,300 signatures on a petition for his release. Mustakim said this experience was her “crash course in immigration.”
While working for her husband’s release, Mustakim grew aware of the needs of others in the detention center, where there was an influx of new immigrants once or twice each month.
“Hearing stories from within the detention center—All it did was increase the passion and the committed zeal with which I do this work,” Mustakim said.
In January 2012, Naz’s charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence, thus clearing his record and waiving his mandatory deportation.
“When he came home, we knew that we had … been placed in this position with this awareness now for other people—for the work of immigration reform, advocacy and justice,” Mustakim said. “I had that conviction, and I’ve never ever stepped away from it.”