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Monday, July 05, 2004

HoustonChronicle.com - The World in Houston: Pakistani visitors receive stern welcome at airport

HoustonChronicle.com - The World in Houston: Pakistani visitors receive stern welcome at airport
The World in Houston
Pakistani visitors receive stern welcome at airport
By EDWARD HEGSTROM
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


There were high hopes when Pakistan International Airlines began its flights from Karachi to Houston in May. Besides the convenience of a one-stop flight, some Pakistanis saw it as a promising sign of yet another bridge between Houston and South Asia.

But passengers arriving from Pakistan have not been getting a warm welcome at Bush Intercontinental Airport, according to Ghulam Bombaywala, a well-known area businessman who heads the Pakistan Association of Greater Houston. In some cases, people getting off the Karachi flight have been met by a wall of about 20 uniformed officers and a police dog or two right at the jetway, Bombaywala said.

"The first thing these passengers see is a sign that says 'Welcome to Houston,' " Bombaywala said. "The next thing they see is an officer with a German shepherd."

Two elderly women passengers fainted at the sight of the dogs, he said.

Bombaywala says he believes the Customs and Border Protection officers at the airport are targeting the twice-weekly flights from Pakistan for particularly aggressive treatment. Pakistani passengers are much more likely than other passengers to be pulled aside for intensive questioning from immigration officials, he said. In some cases, passengers have been questioned for hours or even days, without being allowed access to relatives.

He says he has started advising Pakistanis to fly through New York and then come to Houston on a domestic flight. South Asians have had much less of a problem going through immigration in New York, he said.

A representative of the Pakistan International Airlines would not comment on the issue.

Judy Turner, a local Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, said she did not believe there was any effort to target the Pakistan flights. Turner did confirm that there were dogs in the international arrival area of the airport, and that these dogs might at times even board arriving flights.

But the dogs are there to sniff for drugs and bombs.

"They aren't trained to be aggressive toward people," Turner said. Besides, most of the dogs at the airport are mixed breeds and not German shepherds, she said.

None of this would be immediately obvious to an immigrant from Pakistan, according to Bombaywala

"People in Pakistan don't keep dogs as pets," he said. "They're terrified of dogs."

This is not the first complaint about immigration at Bush Intercontinental Airport. Last year, representatives of Congress, Continental Airlines and the local diplomatic corps complained about the long lines for arriving international passengers. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, promised to resolve the problem by hiring more officials locally.

Bombaywala said he recently met with representatives of Customs and Border Protection to ask about the latest problem with the flights from Pakistan. The officials were noncommittal, he said.

He has also sent a letter to local congressional representatives.

Though he is a longtime U.S. citizen and the owner of several local restaurants, Bombawala says he has been taken aside for extensive questioning at the airport just this year. Immigration officials ask arriving Pakistanis if they are Muslim, what mosque they attend and how many times they pray every day, he said.

"Sometimes they ask the same question 10 times," he said.

Immigration officials at the airport appear to be in a tough position. Many Americans would be outraged if officials did not carefully screen arriving passengers from Muslim countries. Then again, Americans won't make any friends in the Islamic world by assuming all Muslims are enemies.

"There has to be a way to provide closer scrutiny without hurting business travelers or families," said Congressman Gene Green, D-Houston, a frequent critic of the immigration system at the airport. Green said he was concerned by the issues raised by Bombaywala, and awaits an answer from the government.

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