First comes the knock. There are two, maybe three, uniformed officers from the Department of Homeland Security. They tell the boy they want to take his parents in for questioning. Have them back in two to three hours. The father, Gokal Kapoor, is 71, his wife, Sheila Kapoor, 69. Old people. Hindus from Afghanistan. Two hours, they'll be back, see ya.

It takes several days and several lawyers to find out where they are. They're being held in Pamunkey Regional Jail, in Hanover, Virginia, a red and white brick structure at the end of a circular drive. The web page boasts “a state-of-the-art facility” with a housing capacity for 400 inmates. The jail serves the needs of all “user agencies, law enforcement, courts, attorneys, and community organizations.” Mostly it's used to house criminals awaiting trial or convicted of misdemeanors serving less than twelve months. In Pamunkey there is a commissary, run by AraMark. If the prisoner has money in his or her account they can get Snickers bars and Pepsi, soap, feminine hygiene products, underwear. They can even get cups of noodles but not the kind in styrofoam; has to be in a see-through container. Also, no non-dairy creamer. Non-dairy creamer is flammable. There is separate housing for males and females. Male and female prisoners have no access to one another. So Sheila and Gokal don't see one-another anymore. The prisoners spend their time in their unit's day room. They can make phone calls, collect. Very expensive. Sheila's sister comes to visit, drives an hour, but she is turned away. She didn't fill out the paperwork correctly.

No one is sure why Gokal and Sheila have been arrested. They are not accused of anything, they are not interrogated. It seems it was part of a sweep of immigrants working in airports. Gokal is a baggage handler at Dulles. Sheila is an assistant for disabled passengers. But the authorities are not answering questions. Yesterday the Kapoor's were fingerprinted. Looks like they are being readied for deportation. Hard to say. Welcome to The Department Of Homeland Security.

They arrived in America in 1997 fleeing the vicious persecution of Hindus in Afghanistan (imagine statues exploding on mountain sides, a small minority forced to wear identifying insignias, beaten and forced to convert to Islam or pay fines). Sometimes an asylum case can take a while to work its way through the system. Following the American invasion of Afghanistan an immigration judge decided that the Kapoors no longer needed asylum in America, though they'd lived here for years and were very old. Though they had social security numbers and held jobs. They obeyed the law, their son went to school, and they appealed the judge's decision. Two months ago their work permits expired. Eighteen days ago, June 22, on the day they were arrested, their son graduated from high school.

There are thousands of aliens with final deportation orders against them in the Washington-Virginia area. Few are arrested.

Gokal has a successful brother, Dr. Wishwa Kapoor, head of internal medicine at The University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Kapoor has been in America thirty years. He is an American citizen. He retains a lawyer for his brother, Michael Maggio. The Washingtonian called Mr. Maggio “Washington's best immigration lawyer”. Mr. Maggio thinks the whole thing is very unusual. He's quoted in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette – “Why, given the limited resources at the Department of Homeland Security, do they go after a 70-year-old Afghan man who's no threat to anyone and who faces being sent to one of the most dangerous countries in the world?

“And how are they going to deport him, anyway? The government there is barely functioning — who's going to do the paperwork? There's no direct flight to Kabul, so they have to send him through a transit country, which means they'd have to send a U.S. agent to escort him … does anyone think this is the best use of taxpayer dollars?”

He hopes it's just a mistake. But then yesterday the fingerprinting. One has to ask, is it possible? OK, septuagenarians thrown in jail for a few weeks, a mistake, ha ha, part of living in America. They're just tired and poor, yearning to breathe free. It happens. I mean, it's not like they were kept in a super-max. Sure, they haven't done anything wrong and they haven't been allowed to see each other, but it's just jail, a short term facility, it's not prison. Pamunkey, it even sounds funny. And there's a commissary, you can buy Snickers bars. Fine, we locked up some very old people for a few weeks, what's done is done. But are we really going to deport them? I mean, can't we, as a society, just apologize, send the old people home, scarred but still alive. Are we really going to deport Hindus to Afghanistan? After eight years? Their whole family in America and no reason to suspect them of anything. Is this what America has become? Are there no checks and balances for this broken system?

Stephen Elliott is the author of the novel Happy Baby.

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