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Hundreds Write Letters To Stop 30-Year Lawrence Resident From Being Deported

Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3
Taseen Jamal says ICE agents wouldn't let him, his mother or his siblings say goodbye to their father.

This story has been updated with information on the legal proceedings in the deportation case pending against Syed Jamal.   

Syed Jamal, the Bangladeshi chemistry teacher whom ICE is trying to deport, has a new lawyer and she’s challenging the legality of his removal order.

The lawyer, Rekah Sharma-Crawford, argues that his arrest two weeks ago in the yard of his Lawrence home was unlawful. She says there’s no record that the immigration court advised Jamal on his immigration status as required before he was detained.  

“This is about the rule of law,” says Sharma-Crawford. “So do I believe that an order that is obtained in violation of that rule of law should not be executed? Yes, I do.”

The motion, and an earlier one asking to halt Jamal’s removal, are now in the hands of an immigration judge. Sharma-Crawford says she expects speedy action on the motions.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement official insists the issue has already been decided.

“The courts have already issued their rulings and it’s up to ICE to carry out those orders,” Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said in an email to KCUR.  

Hundreds of people in Lawrence, Kansas, have mobilized to stop the deportation of Jamal, who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, is married and has three minor children who are U.S. citizens. 

ICE agents abruptly detained and jailed Jamal on January 22. His pending deportation comes amid a Trump administration crackdown on immigrants with ambiguous immigration status. 

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,” recalls Taseen. “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, 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. 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.

Credit Maria Carter / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
At the Islamic Center of Lawrence, Christine Cook works on her third draft of a letter supporting Syed Jamal.

“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,” she said.

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,” said Leuschen. “And that 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 the children, who are U.S. citizens.

But Jamal’s attorney, Jeffery Bennett, says federal immigration officials knowingly, and officially, allowed Jamal to stay in the United States.

“It is a gray area of the law,” says Bennett, “a policy called prosecutorial discretion.”

That allows the government to make exceptions for upstanding people. Bennett says 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 says U.S. immigration enforcement actions have ramped up dramatically in recent weeks.

Kansas Rep. Dennis "Boog" Highberger, who represents Jamal in the Kansas Legislature, says 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,” says Highberger. “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

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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