What happened to Lawrence chemist Syed Ahmed Jamal is happening everywhere, hundreds of times a day.
Except in his case the public knows, said immigration experts.
“The only way this guy is different is that he has citizen kids in the U.S. and the press is paying attention,” said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge and now resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Jamal’s story, which has spawned a #FreeSyedJamal hashtag on Twitter, represents how arrests and detention are occurring these days under stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents handcuffed Jamal, 55, in his front yard on Jan. 24 as he prepared to take his 12-year-old daughter to school. The man who recently ran for the school board was led to a government car as his wife tried to hug him, but she reportedly was told she should not.
Since then, he’s been whisked to at least four different detention facilities as his lawyers, family, friends and public outcry try to keep him in the U.S., where he’s lived for more than 30 years.
On Tuesday, he remained in ICE custody in Hawaii after the Board of Immigration Appeals granted a second stay of removal. His wife in Lawrence had not heard from him as of Tuesday afternoon and the length of Jamal’s detention continues to be unclear.
“Unfortunately, this is a very common scenario,” said James Austin, an immigration lawyer in Kansas City who has no ties to the Jamal matter. “People don’t tend to know about it because (ICE) doesn’t send out press releases unless there’s been a major sweep. They want to highlight major criminals and gang members,” rather than immigrants regarded by ICE as “non-criminal.”
The dizzying back-and-forth of the last two weeks has Jamal’s family and friends angered and mystified by a government they charge has denied Jamal due process. Unbeknownst to his attorneys, ICE put Jamal on a flight to Hawaii en route to Bangladesh until the appeal board’s stay prevented authorities from proceeding.
“I’ve never heard anything like this game in my life,” said family friend Susan Baker Anderson.
But experts said more such cases are apt to rise because of policies the Department of Homeland Security adopted shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
The administration rescinded a 2011 memorandum by then-ICE director John Morton that allowed “prosecutorial discretion” for noncitizens with strong family connections or educational ties to their communities.
The ending of Morton’s directive, effective last February, has shifted attention from deporting undocumented immigrants who commit serious crimes to what ICE calls “non-criminal” immigrants such as Jamal.
Among the 8,817 ICE arrests nationwide reported for September alone, 4,239 were of the “non-criminal” variety — more than double the number of “non-criminal” aliens arrested in the final month of President Barack Obama’s administration, according to the agency’s website.
And with any arrest involving final orders of removal, ICE has the legal authority to detain and deport individuals without their families being alongside them at the airport.
More and more, Austin said, immigrants under orders to return to their home countries are being approached at their homes, without warning, or taken away in routine visits to ICE offices, where they obtain work permits.
In decades past, the government was more likely to send advance notice known as a “bag and baggage letter,” alerting persons to appear in federal offices with luggage packed or be tracked down and arrested, he said. But often the undocumented immigrant would flee.
“The Trump administration wants ICE to be treated more like (exercising) law enforcement rather than someone executing a civil removal order,” Austin said.
Former judge Arthur said ICE has the authority to do so, and can take detainees wherever the agency wishes to expedite a removal. Given the temporary stay issued Monday for Jamal, “of course, we’re going to honor it,” said ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok.
Judges may grant stays of removal for up to a year for persons facing deportation, ICE wrote in an email to The Star.
But the agency adds: “Pursuing repeated stays is not a viable means for an alien to permanently postpone their required return to their country of origin.”
Though he has twice overstayed visas since arriving in the Kansas City region, Jamal’s supporters cite his decades of studying, working as a researcher and adjunct professor, and being his family’s sole breadwinner.
It was not immediately clear if Jamal might return to Kansas City and bond out of custody, as his attorney Rehka Sharma-Crawford has pledged to pursue.
A case somewhat similar to Jamal’s recently came before U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest in New York. In ordering the release of Ravidath L. Ragbir from custody, Forrest began her Jan. 29 ruling with the statement:
“There is, and ought to be in this country, the freedom to say goodbye. That is, the freedom to hug one’s spouse and children, the freedom to organize the myriad of human affairs that collect over time.”
ICE arrested Ragbir, an immigration activist, when he checked in with ICE offices, as he’d done for years under orders of supervision. The judge acknowledged that the agency had the power to detain him on the spot and proceed with deportation back to Ragbir’s native Trinidad as soon as his travel documents were approved.
Still, Forrest allowed Ragbir to be bonded out from detention because the government was “unnecessarily cruel” in its decision to “pluck him out of his life without a moment’s notice.”
As in Jamal’s case, Ragbir has been granted a temporary stay of removal. Unlike Jamal, however, Ragbir has a criminal past: In the 1990s, after he secured a green card, fraudulent financial deals led to Ragbir’s arrest and a prison term.
Jamal arrived in the Kansas City area in 1987 on a student visa. After completing undergraduate studies, he allowed the visa to expire and returned briefly to Bangladesh on “voluntary removal” orders, ICE said.
A research job at Children’s Mercy Hospital brought him back on an H-1B work visa, which he surrendered to pursue a doctorate in molecular biology. Jamal never completed his studies and ICE said he again overstayed his student visa.
The government has allowed him to stay for the past five years and teach science at a variety of colleges. He had legally obtained work permits in regular visits to ICE offices before his arrest.
In recent years, his family said a citizen brother in Arizona had filed for a “siblings petition,” one of a few ways Jamal could obtain citizenship. But even when a close relative sponsors a noncitizen, the wait can take 15 to 20 years.
Addressing Congress on Tuesday morning, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, a Kansas City Democrat, said Jamal’s case is “still in limbo” despite the stay and the fact that nearly 100,000 people have signed a Change.org petition backing Jamal. Supporters hope that his release will allow Jamal time to address his legal status in court.
Cleaver said he is continuing to work with Republican U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas to draft legislation to protect Jamal.