From war-torn Bangladesh to wheat-rich Kansas, vulnerability has followed scientist Syed Ahmed Jamal.
Before the story of his arrest and potential deportation went viral and attracted the support of thousands, Jamal wrote from jail about the persecution he faced in his home country.
“I was a prime target of discrimination and physical violence because I belonged to a lingual and ethnic minority, known as Biharis,” he hand-penned to his attorney in late January. “Ethnic slurs were hurled.
“Between 1981 and 1987, I was beaten by a group of people in Mahammadpur, Dhaka.... Another group of fundamentalists had planned to kill me, but I was able to escape with forewarning.”
Salvation came in the form of a student visa to the Kansas City area. Then came college education, and jobs researching and teaching molecular sciences.
Now 30 years into his American journey, Jamal — a father of three U.S.-born children — is facing a different kind of ethnic confrontation: an immigration crackdown that threatens to break up his family.
How could it happen to an accomplished chemist who’s been in the U.S. since Ronald Reagan was president?
Some say Jamal has himself to blame. He twice overstayed his visa, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and missed chances to keep his status legal.
Others believe that his Jan. 24 arrest — without warning, being handcuffed in front of his wife and kids, a man without a criminal background — reflects the need for immigration laws to be reworked.
Here’s a cold truth: Immigration law is complicated and stringent. Just one slip can make lawful immigrants illegal. And Jamal had a few slips dating back more than a decade.
Tracing the slip-ups
Rewind to 2002, when the Bangladeshi arrived for his second extended stay in America. Jamal’s original student visa had expired in 2000, according to ICE, so he returned to his home country.
About three months later, Jamal came back to the area with his bride, carrying a H-1B work visa, granted to highly skilled talent and sponsored by his new employer, Children’s Mercy Hospital.
He did lab work for four years until the visa expired in 2006 and the hospital stopped future funding.
Still, he could remain legal, pending his application for an F-1 student visa to pursue a doctorate.
Then, a second slip: He waited too long to file. This lapse was the first of problems that ultimately put Jamal, a one-time candidate for the Lawrence school board, at serious risk of deportation.
But the federal government may have slipped, too. According to his attorneys and friends, Department of Homeland Security officials informed Jamal years after they initially approved his student visa that they were wrong to have done so, due to the delayed filing.
“Any little gap in your visa status can be fatal,” Kansas City immigration attorney Jessica Piedra said.
So after Jamal enrolled in 2008 at the University of Kansas to pursue a PhD in molecular biology, authorities revoked his student visa. He never completed his doctorate.
And he’s been on ICE’s radar ever since.
The case is complicated, and “unusual, for sure...but these things do happen,” said Jeffrey Y. Bennett, a lawyer retained by the family in the initial days after Jamal’s arrest. Jamal has since switched attorneys.
On the treacherous slopes of immigration law, it is easy to slip, said several experts who have no ties to the Jamal case but are following it in the news.
“He may be brilliant in the field of science,” said Northland lawyer Bill Niffen. “But that doesn’t mean he was an expert in immigration.”
A voluntary departure ignored
In 2011 came Jamal’s next mistake: An immigration judge allowed that he go back to Bangladesh via “voluntary departure,” giving him some months to arrange his exit at Jamal’s own expense. Technically not a deportation, he could’ve come back to Lawrence with a fresh visa — an option unlikely in cases of forced removal.
But Jamal didn’t go.
He had family reasons. His Bangladeshi wife, whose legal status was attached to his, had just given birth to a third child.
All three youngsters have excelled in Lawrence public schools. The oldest son, 14, already is being recruited by Duke University. And Jamal loved raising his family, friends say.
The sole breadwinner, he continued to do research published in peer-reviewed journals (stem-cell applications were a specialty) and he taught as an adjunct professor at several colleges.
Voluntary departures are considered a break for immigrants facing deportation, said Jeremy McKinney, a North Carolina attorney and secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. But McKinney said other legal options should be pursued if a person needs to stay in the U.S.
“Every time you seek forgiveness, the government is less likely to give it,” said McKinney.
If a client does not comply, he said, “it can make the situation worse.”
A year after Jamal failed to depart, the court ordered his deportation. He was jailed for two months in late 2012. But ICE chose not to press for his removal from the country, as he was deemed neither a flight risk nor a threat.
Jamal also feared for his safety in Bangladesh. In some cases visitors to the U.S. with status problems can seek political asylum — a legal resort Jamal may have been weighing at the time he chose not to depart for his home country, said McKinney.
The Biharis minority to which his ancestors belonged supported Pakistan when Bangladesh separated in the early 1970s, an independence gained after years of conflict.
In his letter from the Morgan County, Mo., Jail, Jamal asserted that Bangladesh has a history of “forced disappearance of academians, extortions of U.S. returnees, killings of bloggers with liberal views, and beatings in public.”
When he last visited there in 2002, Jamal’s teachings at Rockhurst University on “religion, pluralism and diversity...became know(n) to many people” who objected in Bangladesh, he wrote.
At a recent news conference outside the Platte County Jail, where Jamal is now being held pending further court action, reporters grilled his attorney Rekha Sharma-Crawford on why Jamal wasn’t yet a U.S. citizen. Or hadn’t obtained a green card, enabling permanent residency that can lead to citizenship.
“Citizenship is not a stand-alone application that people simply file” on their own, Sharma-Crawford said. Immigrants need a U.S. sponsor to launch what could be a decades-long process.
And she is right, say experts not involved in her case.
There are two narrow options for foreign-born visitors in Jamal’s situation to begin the citizenship process, wrote Colorado immigration lawyer Eric Pavri in a blog. And Jamal pursued both:
▪ Employer-based petitions. A U.S. company such as Children’s Mercy can sponsor a visitor’s H-1B work visa so long as it chooses to pay the $6,000 to $9,000 to file necessary papers. Such visas need to be re-filed every few years.
Because of the costs, experts said, smaller colleges that hired Jamal to lecture part-time as an adjunct professor weren’t apt to commit to work visas for him.
An option that Jamal pursued almost a decade ago was applying for a National Interest Waiver. It’s a long shot for those seeking permanent residency without a company’s or close relative’s sponsorship.
Applicants request permanent residency on grounds of national benefit based on their contributions to education, a family structure or community.
The waiver was denied.
▪ Family-based petitions. This means a U.S. citizen who is a parent, spouse, child over 21 or sibling files for permanent residency on the visitor’s behalf.
Jamal has four U.S. citizen siblings.
The first of them landed citizenship around 2005, said his brother Syed Hussein Jamal, who lives in Arizona. In May 2008, a brother in Texas petitioned the U.S. State Department to sponsor Jamal’s request for permanent residency. It was the same year authorities revoked Jamal’s student visa.
Court records show that officials approved the petition in 2010, but that just started the process. Backlogs in the immigration system are delaying issuance of green cards for up to 20 years, depending on the country of origin. And Bangladesh isn’t near the top of the preferred list.
Perhaps the underlying reason for Jamal not securing his legal status: Overly complex immigration rules, even for those trying to abide by them.
“The laws are so unforgiving” if someone slips, said Overland Park lawyer Mira Mdivani, who mostly serves corporations trying to recruit and keep foreign talent in this country.
Once a person’s visa status is lost, it usually can’t be corrected, she said.
Final orders of deportation mean just that. And Jamal was subjected to those orders five years ago, but ICE allowed him to stay as long as he reported regularly on “orders of supervision.”
And he complied, his lawyers say. Jamal showed up at ICE offices to obtain temporary work authorization provided to unlawful immigrants making respectable contributions to society. His last authorization was valid until October.
That allowance changed under President Donald Trump.
No longer should ICE agents and enforcers exercise “prosecutorial discretion” to consider the good community standing of offenders. Trump last year rescinded a Barack Obama administration rule that allowed agents to grant discretion to what ICE refers to as “non-criminals.”
Yet many say any foreigner facing deportation orders is a criminal.
“It’s breaking the law,” to remain in America without a valid visa, said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge now with the Center for Immigration Studies. “These people knew there would come a time when they’d be told to leave.”
Lacking a valid visa, Syed Ahmed Jamal has run out of options and now faces the most intolerant thing of all: time.