Hundreds of people in Lawrence, Kansas, have mobilized around an effort to stop the deportation of Syed Jamal, a beloved father, chemistry professor and community volunteer.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents abruptly detained and jailed Jamal on Jan. 22. His pending deportation, after three decades in the community, comes amid a Trump administration crackdown on immigrants with ambiguous immigration statuses.
On a winter morning a couple of weeks ago, 14-year-old Taseen Jamal was getting ready for school when ICE officers pulled up.
“The ICE officers parked right behind our car so we couldn't leave,” Taseen recalls. “And then they knocked on the window, and then my dad talked to them and [they] said they're there for the arrest of Syed Jamal ... to which my dad said that that was him. So they took him out to the car, put handcuffs [on him] behind his back."
Syed Jamal came to Lawrence from Bangladesh more than 30 years ago on a student visa to attend the University of Kansas. He got a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in pharmaceutical sciences. He got another visa to work at Children’s Mercy Hospital. He’s taught at several area universities, most recently at Park University. Jamal’s three kids were born in the United States. They say it had been years since he'd had as much as a speeding ticket, so the raid seemed to come out of nowhere.
Taseen says it felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.
“I couldn't understand what was happening,” he says.
An honors student, Taseen responded quickly.
“The first thing that came to mind was to ask them for warrants, so I did. And when I kept asking them, even after they said that they had one but wouldn't show it to me, they threatened to take me in for interfering with the arrest,” he says. “I couldn't do anything. And then when my mother went to hug my dad goodbye, they said the same thing to her ... Then they shoved my dad into the car, slammed the door and drove off.”
Immigration agents took Jamal to the jail in Morgan County, Missouri, nearly three hours from Lawrence. Taseen hasn’t seen his father since. Neither have his 12-year-old sister, 6-year-old brother or his mother, who is Bangladeshi and also subject to deportation.
Taseen says his mother's health is faltering, and that a kind of stunned hush grips the family.
“It's very quiet," he says. "And my mom, I'll just go to ask her something and see that she's crying.”
The family does have allies. Hundreds crowded into Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence on Saturday. People of just about every age sat around tables, filling notebook pages with handwritten letters.
“We've had over 500 people come today,” said Susan Anderson, a friend and neighbor who organized a letter-writing campaign. “I don't know how many letters because we had a lot of little kids and friends of the family that are friends of the kids."
Marci Leuschen, a biology teacher at Free State High School, said Jamal inspired her children.
“He would come in and do lessons with them, and dissect cow eyeballs with them,” Leuschen said. “My son still talks about those lessons with him. And thinking about this man, and his passion for science and then being able to inspire a younger generation with that same enthusiasm and passion, I think is an incredible gift that he gave our community."
Leuschen said Jamal helped lead a Lawrence middle school Future City planning team to win 5th place in the national competition last year. He also volunteers as a soccer coach and ran for school board.
“I mean, he’s a giver,” Leuschen said. “And the fact that we’re saying that this type of man, with this type of credentials, is not what we want in America is absolutely insane.”
Jamal’s immigration status is complicated. His visa expired years ago, and in 2011 he was ordered to get himself out of the United States. In fact, that was his second warning. So, Jamal is here illegally, and the government is within its rights to deport him. The same goes for his wife, Angela Zaynub Chowdhury, but not their children, who are U.S. citizens.
But Jamal’s attorney, Jeffery Bennett, said federal immigration officials knowingly, and officially, allowed Jamal to stay in the United States.
“It is a gray area of the law,” Bennett said, “a policy called prosecutorial discretion.”
That allows the government to make exceptions for upstanding people. Bennett said that standard should apply in Jamal's case, noting that he supports a wife and three kids and pays taxes. Also, he would likely face a tough time in Bangladesh because he's part of an Indian ethnic group whose members are persecuted and sometimes even burned alive.
Nevertheless, Bennett puts the chances of stopping Jamal’s forced deportation at one in 20 at best. He said U.S. immigration enforcement actions have ramped up dramatically in recent weeks.
Kansas Rep. Dennis "Boog" Highberger, who represents Jamal in the Kansas Legislature, said his constituent’s predicament is a consequence of the last presidential election.
“I would imagine that under the Obama administration, [he] would not be a high priority for deportation,” Highberger said. “So I think it is pretty clearly a result of the change in the administration. It's harsher, certainly not family oriented.”
As of Sunday night, a petition supporting Jamal had drawn almost 20,000 signatures.
Right now a “stay of removal request” is the only thing stopping Jamal from being deported, and the Department of Homeland Security could decide on that any day. Even if he avoids being sent back to Bangladesh this month, Jamal will face a long, uncertain path to citizenship.
Frank Morris is a national NPR correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman