Like a typical Wednesday morning, Syed Ahmed Jamal was getting his children ready for school. As soon as he stepped outside, however, he was apprehended by ICE agents and removed from his home, unable to say goodbye to his wife and three kids before being led away in handcuffs.
The arrest has shocked Lawrence, Kansas residents, who consider Jamal to be a “beloved Lawrence family man, scientist and community leader”, according to a GoFundMe page set up on behalf of the family. The 55-year-old adjunct Chemistry professor, originally from Bangladesh, was respected as a family man and a contributing member to society and had nothing on his criminal record besides “speeding tickets, basically” according to his lawyer, Jeffrey Y. Bennett.
According to ICE officials, Jamal had indeed entered the country legally more than 30 years ago on a student visa. As a student, he received graduate degrees in pharmaceutical engineering and molecular biosciences; afterwards, he settled down in Lawrence to raise a family, switching to a H-1B visa given to highly skilled workers. He would then revert back to a student visa upon his enrollment in a doctoral program, ultimately obtaining a temporary work permit by the time of his arrest.
Despite the fact that Jamal had followed all the rules regarding permits and visas, authorities discovered that he had twice overstayed his visa and, in 2011, defied court orders to leave the country. In 2012, Jamal was arrested on a misdemeanor charge, but the nature of the offense was not immediately confirmed by local authorities.
Under the Obama Administration, Jamal, who had to regularly check in with ICE officials after his refusal to leave the country, was allowed to stay and obtain legal work permits. “At that time, President Obama directed the Department of Homeland Security to exercise prosecutorial discretion on certain people who could legally be deported . . . and refrain from deporting them if they have more favorable factors than negative factors in their life. Not only does Mr. Jamal teach his children to contribute to society, but he models this belief as well,” Bennett said.
Jamal’s actions lend to the legitimacy of Bennett’s words; he regularly volunteers in Lawrence Public Schools, recently running for a vacant school board position. All five of his siblings are living in the U.S. as citizens, and his three children — also U.S. citizens — depend on him as the sole provider, as his wife donated a kidney last year and is currently recovering.
Bennett believes that this level of targeting is unfair to people like Jamal, who had been allowed to stay on the basis that they were seen as positively contributing members of their community; ICE, however, feels differently. “[The agency] continues to focus its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” said ICE in an emailed statement to the Washington Post, adding that it “does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”
Both Jamal’s family and the community he has come to know and love are reeling. An online petition, created by neighbors Marci Leuschen and Susan Baker-Anderson, has already gathered nearly 28,000 signatures to keep Jamal in the U.S. Baker-Anderson said she was shocked when Jamal’s wife, Angela Zaynaub Chowdhury, called and told her the news. “I had no idea. I’ve never really asked anyone their status, their immigration status. I kind of think that’s rude,” she said. “I talked to my friend who’s the kids’ gifted teacher and another friend . . . and we were like, ‘We’ve got to do something for the family,’ and that’s how the petition started.”
She also organized a letter-writing campaign to gather notarized testimonies in an effort to vouch for Jamal’s character. She expected perhaps 50 people to show up, but was overwhelmed when 500 people — ten times her initial estimate — came to lend their support for their beloved community member. “We’ve just had a huge response,” Baker-Anderson said. “It’s not like a liberal [vs.] non-liberal thing. This is just a bunch of people in this community that love this family. We have people from both sides of the aisle — people that voted for Trump, people that don’t like him — but it’s about the family.”
Where Jamal’s friends mobilized, his family suffered. His oldest son, 14-year-old Taseen, has become the defacto person of contact for the family, as his mother has declined interviews, possibly due to health reasons. In his interview with the Kansas City Star, he recounted that ICE officials had warned the family that hugging their father or even saying goodbye to him would result in being charged with interfering in an arrest, which can result in a misdemeanor.
Taseen’s heartbreaking letter of support to his father says it all:
“Hello, my name is Taseen Jamal, and my father has recently been arrested, taken to the Morgan County, Mo., jail, and is being considered for deportation. My little brother cries every night, my sister can’t focus in school, and I cannot sleep at night. My mother is in trauma, and because she is a live organ donor, she only has one kidney, so the stress is very dangerous. She could die if he is deported.
“If my father is deported, my siblings and I may never get to see him again. He is an older man, and due to the conditions of his home country, he might not be able to survive. My father called us, and he was crying like a little child because he was thinking about what would happen to us if he got deported.
“We are the children of Syed Ahmed Jamal, and we are requesting on behalf of our family for your kind help to get back our father. A home is not a home without a father.”
If deported back to Bangladesh, Jamal’s brother, Syed Hussain Jamal, fears the worst, as his background as an Urdu-speaking, U.S.-educated, liberal, secular Muslim could get him killed by Islamist extremists. When asked about why Jamal didn’t just get citizenship like the rest of his siblings, his brother explained the difficulties he encountered. “He was trying everything he could,” Syed Hussain Jamal said. “Sometimes it’s not as easy as people think to get a green card here. [My brother] had a job, an H1-B visa, then came back on a student visa, you know? And then he was trying to pursue a PhD program and that did not work out . . . and that’s when he kind of went out of status.”
Now, all hope rests on the mercy of the Department of Homeland Security — the same agency that arrested Jamal in the first place. “[The family is] aware that this is a very difficult case to try to get a positive outcome because these stay-of-removal applications are rarely, rarely ever approved,” Bennett told the Washington Post. “But we’re giving it a shot, and this is the only thing that we can possibly do at this point to prevent an imminent deportation.”