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Michigan café owner's deportation fight simmers

Ibrahim Parlak at his cafe in Harbert, Michigan
Gabrielle Emanuel
Michigan Radio

On Wednesday, Congressman Fred Upton will meet with a man whom the U.S. government has been trying to deport for over a decade.

Some say Ibrahim Parlak is a terrorist.  Others say he’s a model immigrant.

Parlak runs a popular café in Harbert, a resort town in Southwest Michigan. On the day I visited, it was quiet and all the chairs were tucked in.

Parlak temporarily closed Café Gulistan because he says he needs to focus on fighting deportation.

“Even if I am here, I am not good,” Parlak says. “This thing is just like a cloud following you everywhere you go.”

Parlak, who is slender and in his mid-50s, shows me the wall hangings in the cafe. There’s a Kurdish flag, and above the windows are colorful woven cloths.

“They use them to decorate the tents,” explains Parlak. “So that people will recognize from the design who the tent belongs to, just like today’s house numbers.”

They remind Parlak of where he grew up in southeast Turkey.

He says he misses it, but growing up there wasn’t easy. Parlak is a Kurd, a persecuted ethnic minority.

He says things got particularly bad when he was in high school. Parlak was involved with groups who advocated for Kurdish independence. He was captured by the Turkish government and tortured.

“No food. Holding in a small box. Hanging. Spraying with cold water,” says Parlak, detailing the torture techniques he says were used against him. “I mean anything you can imagine.”

Parlak claims he was never violent, except in self-defense. He says he participated in hunger strikes and organized cultural events.

After years of getting tangled up with the authorities, Parlak decided to flee Turkey. He got a fake passport, booked a ticket to the U.S. and packed a suitcase with documents showing he was tortured.

Parlak vividly remembers the border patrol woman who let him into New York.

“If I could see her, I just gonna give her a big hug,” says Parlak.

He quickly won political asylum in the U.S. in 1992 and set out to build a new life. He learned English, started a family, and moved to Michigan. There, he built a strong community and a bustling restaurant. 

Several years later, in 1997, the U.S. declared the main Kurdish separatist group, the PKK, a terrorist organization.

This turned out to be a problem for Parlak. All of a sudden, the activism that earned him political asylum made the U.S. wary that Parlak was a threat.

When Parlak applied for citizenship, the U.S. reviewed his case and found that Parlak had checked a box that said he’d never been arrested.

“It started with one stupid box,” he says.

He claims that his lawyer's secretary accidentally ticked the wrong box. After all, he submitted documents about his arrests to win political asylum, including his jail ID card. However, the prosecutors argued he had checked that wrong box on two different occasions, and that suggests it wasn't a mistake.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment. However, records show they called Parlak a "complete terrorist package," arguing that he had funneled money to the PKK and transported weapons for them. Parlak denies those claims and says the U.S. used statements that were induced by torture in Turkey.

Immigration authorities also argued that in his application for asylum, Parlak had failed to fully inform authorities about a 1988 firefight on the Syrian-Turkish border in which two Turkish soldiers were killed. Turkey had accused Parlak of involvement, although Parlak denies it.

U.S. courts repeatedlysided with immigration authorities, saying Parlak had been misleading. During a decade-long battle to avoid deportation, Parlak spent over 10 months in Calhoun County Jail.

Year after year, one person has saved Parlak: U.S. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan.

Levin introduced bills in the Senate, and Upton introduced bills in the House that prevented the U.S. from deporting Parlak. In 2010, Homeland Security started issuing deportation deferrals.

But Levin retired last year, and Parlak's latest deferral is about to expire. That means he could be deported.

In Turkey, Parlak's possible return is all over the news. That makes Parlak worry that he could be tortured or killed if he returns. Since the U.S. has promised not to send people to countries where they could be tortured, Parlak filed a motion with the Board of Immigration Appeals. The government has until mid February to respond.

Some experts think this whole saga is a waste of time and energy. Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., is among them. 

“We really have serious security issues in this country, and I think this is not one of them,” he says.

Barkey suggests one theory: The U.S. is sending Ibrahim Parlak back to appease Turkey. Basically, Turkey is upset that the U.S. has been collaborating with the Kurdish separatists to fight ISIS. They think Parlak's return will help mend relations.

Barkey doesn’t buy this theory.

“I do not think this is a decision that is being made by the high levels of our foreign policy decision makers,” says Barkey.

His best guess is that someone in the Detroit immigration office is trying to show their authority.

“It sounds to me like this is a frivolous investigation which is totally unwarranted,” says Barkey, who points out that Parlak has been living in the U.S. peacefully for nearly 25 years.

Congressman Fred Upton agrees. He’s been working to find a way to let Ibrahim Parlak stay permanently. But it’s hard without a senator to partner with – and so far neither Michigan senator has taken up Parlak’s cause.