It took just a few days for the world to react to the detention of Lawrence chemist Syed Ahmed Jamal, but the story ahead may be slow and uncertain.
Here’s how it started: On Feb. 1, Jamal’s family and friends launched a Change.org petition pleading for signatures backing a stay of Jamal’s deportation, following his arrest last month by Immigration and Customs Enforcement while taking his daughter to school.
Eight thousand people signed in the first 24 hours. By the third day, the count had climbed to 35,000. On Friday, more than 67,000 — plus more than $40,000 given to a GoFundMe.com campaign for the defense costs of Jamal.
He remains in a deportation staging area in Texas and, depending on the outcome of his case, he could yet be sent back to Bangladesh.
“He could be here (in the U.S.) for months, could be here for years,” said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge and now resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that promotes tighter immigration controls. “Or he could be here for a week.”
Social media spread awareness of Jamal’s arrest for overstaying his visa. Since he first legally entered America 30 years ago, he has studied, taught college science and raised three U.S. citizen children.
On Wednesday, Judge Glen R. Baker of the Kansas City Immigration Court issued a temporary stay of removal for Jamal and set a Feb. 15 deadline for the Department of Homeland Security to respond to his attorneys’ motion to re-open immigration court proceedings to address his legal status.
The “temporary brief stay of removal,” as Baker phrased it, could lengthen Jamal’s time in the United States no matter how the judge rules on re-opening the case. Arthur said that Baker’s final decision, even if it’s not in Jamal’s favor, opens a window for his family to appeal — perhaps setting into motion a long legal process.
One other wrinkle: Legal appeals don’t mean that Jamal will come home to Lawrence anytime soon.
“ICE can deport (Jamal) whenever they want,” said immigration expert Arthur. “For years he’s been under final orders of removal.”
In a statement issued Friday, ICE said Jamal’s transfer from a central Missouri jail to a detention facility near El Paso reflected the agency’s routine to place “aliens pending imminent deportation to locations where they will pick up their removal flight” to a country of origin.
Jamal’s attorney, Rekha Sharma-Crawford, acknowledged “missteps” on Jamal’s part to maintain legal status. But she cited jumbled immigration laws and an overly aggressive ICE for placing Jamal and his family in peril.
According to ICE, Jamal, 55, twice overstayed his visa since arriving in the United States to attend college in 1987. At first he held a student visa, then briefly returned to Bangladesh on “voluntary departure” orders, only to come back as a newlywed with an H-1B work visa to do research at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
Then back to a student visa: He re-enrolled at University of Kansas to pursue a molecular biology doctorate, which he never completed. The visa expired.
After being taken into ICE custody in 2011, immigration court allowed him to stay under supervisory orders to report annually to ICE. The agency granted him work permits to teach chemistry at area colleges.
Online support for Jamal has been pitted against puzzlement by many who note that he had 30 years to seek U.S. citizenship.
In recent years, his family said a citizen brother in Arizona had filed for a “siblings petition,” one way Jamal could obtain citizenship. But even when a close relative sponsors a noncitizen, the wait can take 15 to 20 years — all the while the immigrant must maintain a valid visa.
“It’s not completely in their own hands,” said Sharma-Crawford. “It’s a little like buying a lottery ticket every day for 20 years and people asking, ‘Well, why didn’t you win the lottery?’ (Immigration) law is broken.”
Jamal’s career, family, clean criminal history (a search of court records revealed only a 2015 speeding ticket) and community involvement stirred supporters. For many, an opposition to President Donald Trump also was a factor.
“Here was a human face on what’s happening in government,” said the Rev. Peter Luckey of Lawrence’s Plymouth Congregational Church, which hosted a letter-writing campaign on Feb. 3 that drew hundreds of residents. “We know him. And so this whole immigration debate no longer is abstract.
“A lot of us feel it’s time to be in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
At a Thursday march through Lawrence that drew more than 150 supporters, schoolteacher and Jamal family friend Dani Lotton Barker said: “Yes, this is about a lot of things.”
About fear. Compassion. Racism, said marchers who never met Jamal.
And social media has played a huge role in it all.
A Star story posted Feb. 2 triggered hundreds of thousands of page views, as pro-immigration interest groups shared the piece. Within hours, international media jumped in.
CNN swooped into Lawrence and asked Jamal’s daughter Naheen, 12, if she had a message for Trump. “He shouldn’t be taking people who’ve done nothing wrong,” she responded, almost in a whisper.
An analysis of people searching for Jamal’s name on Google since Feb. 2 showed interest peaking on Feb. 6, as it spread across south-central Asia, his native land.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and ranking member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, pledged on Friday to “monitor” Jamal’s case.
“We should not be wasting (taxpayer money) trying to cause problems in this man’s life,” she said in a visit to Kansas City. “It makes no sense whatsoever.”
A rally is scheduled from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 4501 Walnut St. in Kansas City.
The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed.