On January 24, in his front yard in Lawrence, Kansas, to take his 12-year-old daughter to school, Syed Ahmed Jamal was seized and arrested by US immigration officers.
Mr Jamal, who came to the US from Bangladesh on a student visa over 30 years ago, was hustled off to jail in handcuffs as an undocumented immigrant without even being given the chance to say goodbye to his wife and three children.
Jamal, who translated that student visa into several undergraduate and graduate degrees, teaches chemistry at a local college and is the model citizen who we should want to keep.
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has repeatedly stated that it focuses its now-hyperactive deportation policy on “individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security,” -- a description which clearly does not fit Jamal. In 2012, ICE had informed him he could stay in the US if he checked in periodically while he worked out the visa problem. The decision to reverse this and deport him was evidently taken without informing him and giving him a chance to respond and react.
This is just one of thousands such examples of ICE’s almost mindless enforcement of President Trump’s reversal of his predecessor’s instruction to be intelligent and focus on the threats to national security, public safety, and border security that do exist among the millions of undocumented immigrants in the US.
The great majority of these undocumented immigrants are from Latin America, of course, but there are many Asians also, including a number of Asian Muslims like Mr Jamal. Fortunately, a court acted quickly, before ICE could deport him, and issued a stay.
There are, reportedly, at least 2,800 Pakistanis among the 800,000 so-called “Dreamers” for whom President Obama issued a special executive order called the Deferred Action on Child Arrivals (DACA), which deferred action on undocumented immigrants who entered the US with, or were born here to, their undocumented parents.
DACA has become an unusual political football.
Poll after poll has shown that the great majority of Americans approve the idea of giving these deserving young people a path to citizenship. Yet proposals to resolve the issue continue to be blocked by conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives who argue that it would reward those who have broken the law (their parents actually). It is a rather tortured argument and I will not waste space explaining because I think their real reason is to use it a chip in the bargaining general immigration policy.
These conservative Republicans, and President Trump and his advisors in particular, are anxious to completely upend our current immigration policy and turn back the clock to the days (a very brief period from 1924 to 1964) when US immigration policy and law gave preference to Western European immigrants. President Trump’s primary campaign promise, and certainly the most compelling one to his core supporters, was to reverse the US historic policy of welcome to immigrants, and not only to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, but to reduce and change the nature of legal immigration.
Mr Jamal, who came to the US from Bangladesh on a student visa over 30 years ago, was hustled off to jail in handcuffs as an undocumented immigrant
In the now infamous meeting in which he slanged African and some Latin American countries, he is reported to have asked why we could not have more immigrants from Norway instead of those slanged countries. Since he doesn’t read much, we are told, it is safe to assume he missed the report of a global survey on US popularity that had just been published which noted that the country with the highest percentage of inhabitants who disliked the US was Norway. Yes, a higher percentage even than Pakistan.
And the recent compromise he offered on the Dreamers is aimed at that objective. He would support, he said, regularizing Dreamers and others of the same age, in exchange for agreement on changes which would, essentially, bring back preferences for European immigrants, although it would be articulated differently.
US immigration history is far from perfect. But at its best it is an idea that like the US itself, a new world democracy, was ahead of its time -- a free, democratic country that welcomed the poor and dispossessed from the rest of the world.
However, as immigrants began to pour in during the 1830s, resentments grew and political troubles followed. With egregious exceptions of Chinese and Japanese, however, federal intervention was minimal, and legislative reference to national origin or religion was rare.
In 1830, immigrants were about 1% of the US population; by 1850 they were almost 10%; in 1900 over 13%; in 2000 about 11%.
In 1924, seized by a wave of hysteric xenophobia, Congress passed a comprehensive immigration bill designed to reduce immigration and set quotas by national origin of the population in 1880. After WWII, as we assumed serous global responsibility, we saw the folly of such a discriminatory policy and it ended.
Except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants. And because of that, we revere the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from the people of France to the people of the US in 1886 to celebrate the idea of a free democratic country open to the poor and dispossessed from other lands.
The poet Emma Lazarus, one of those who conceived of the idea of the statue, wrote a sonnet to commemorate it which is inscribed on a bronze plate on the statue’s pedestal. Lazarus called the statue the “Mother of Exiles” whose “beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome …” The final lines are: “Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I fear the lamp may be going out and the golden door closing.
Postscript: I wrote on last Sunday about Syed Ahmed Jamal being arrested and taken off to jail peremptorily to be deported. Before ICE could do that, however, a judge issued a stay of the deportation. The arrest was on January 24, and the stay some time last week, most probably on February 6, as it was made public on the next day.
So, he languished in the Kansas jail for about nine days. For some reason, the judge lifted the stay on Tuesday as we went to press. Almost immediately ICE (the same day as far as I can tell) put him on a plane to Bangladesh. His lawyer rushed to court and got another stay from another federal court. He was already on a plane, but it had to land to refuel in Honolulu. He was taken off the plane and put into a federal holding facility.
The immigration service basically pounced on Jamal in that Kansas jail and hustled him onto a flight to Asia in order to get him out of the country before a court could act again to stop the process. It was only because the plane had to refuel in Hawaii, did he miss being deported in the few hours between the stays.
William Milam is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh. This article previously appeared on The Friday Times and it has been reprinted under special arrangement.