Immigration law expert explains rocky path to citizenship; for cases like Syed Jamal’s, it’s complicated

Syed Jamal, right, visits Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, with a group including his lawyers and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver at the Texas detention center where Jamal was being held. Jamal, a Lawrence scientist and father of three, is facing deportation after more than 30 years in the U.S.

Over and over again, the question has been posed. “Why didn’t he apply for citizenship?” Many in Lawrence and across the country have wondered why Syed Ahmed Jamal, the 55-year-old father and scientist locked in a deportation battle with the federal government, had not become a legal citizen after more than 30 years in the U.S.

But according to Lua Yuille, an associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Law and a specialist in immigration law, the path toward citizenship isn’t all that simple. It’s a long, complicated and expensive process that can be unforgiving, she says, and even dangerous for some.

“What people don’t understand when they say ‘Get in line’ is that they’re asking people to wait in line for decades,” Yuille said.

Syed Hussein Jamal, a brother of Jamal, often answers the question with a question: “My question to most people is, ‘Have you ever filled out an immigration form?'”

Syed Ahmed Jamal has filled out many, and according to family members actually made his first attempt at becoming a permanent resident 10 years ago. Becoming a permanent resident is a required first step in applying for citizenship. Syed Hussein Jamal — who is a U.S. citizen in Arizona — said his other brother, Khalid Jamal, an American citizen in Atlanta, filed a family-based petition for permanent residency on Syed Ahmed Jamal’s behalf in 2008. A backlog in visas, however, made Jamal ineligible to apply for permanent residency using his brother’s petition.

There is another method that immigrants often use to obtain permanent residency and citizenship, Yuille said. They have their employer petition on their behalf.

Jamal was prepared to use that company route, his brother said. His brother said he would have pursued a petition from his U.S. employer, Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., but he got laid off in 2006. Jamal had already gone through the process to receive an extension of his H-1B visa in 2005 while working at Children’s Mercy.

Jamal originally entered the U.S. legally in 1987, earning multiple bachelor’s degrees and, later, a master’s degree, at area colleges. After overstaying his student visa following his graduation from University of Missouri-Kansas City, Jamal voluntarily returned to Bangladesh in 2002, legally re-entering the U.S. three months later on a nonimmigrant H-1B visa.

Those “lucky” enough to receive a permanent residency within five years, Yuille told the Journal-World, often do qualify for citizenship. But the road to citizenship can be surprisingly “dangerous,” Yuille said. The American public tends to view that process as “this easy, wonderful thing,” she said, but in reality, “one of the most common ways that people find themselves in deportation proceedings is applying for citizenship.”

Essentially, citizenship is not merely given to those who meet all the necessary qualifications. Instead, it’s discretionary, based on the judgment of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and that agency’s “largely undefined” requirements of moral character, Yuille said. Jamal’s visa overstays, combined with any potential transgressions — even a mere traffic violation — could have put the Lawrence father at risk for deportation proceedings, Yuille said.

“As a practitioner, I have very frequently, frankly, advised people that it might not be the best time to apply for citizenship as long as their lawful permanent status is good,” she said.

Jamal’s story is one of several similar cases to make national headlines in recent months, as President Donald Trump’s call for a widespread deportation crackdown began taking effect. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made 140,000 arrests in 2017, marking a 30 percent jump from the previous year. The number of noncriminal arrests, like Jamal’s, has doubled.

Whereas criminal cases were prioritized under former President Barack Obama, ICE agents are now also enforcing judges’ deportation orders against all immigrants subject to deportation, regardless of criminal record or lack thereof. The shift in ICE’s enforcement and removal focus has made low-hanging fruit of people like Jamal, who might not have felt vulnerable to deportation under a more forgiving Obama presidency.

These individuals, Yuille said, are not in hiding. They study here, work here and often choose to raise their families here. Some even opt to take on very public leadership roles in their communities, as Jamal did last year in an unsuccessful bid for an open seat on the Lawrence school board.

“If they’re going to be targeting anybody in particular, why not choose easy marks?” Yuille said of recent ICE arrests.

Often, she said, ICE officers choose to arrest those like Jamal at their workplace or at home, usually in the morning. That’s what happened to Jamal last month, when agents pulled up outside his house and handcuffed the 55-year-old father as he readied his three children for school that morning. Jamal’s wife, Angela Zaynub Chowdhury, has said her kids were traumatized by the incident, which she said was “a complete shock” to her family.

According to his attorney, Rekha Sharma-Crawford, Jamal has a work permit valid until October 2018. She said Jamal has been under an order of supervision for the last six years, “doing everything” asked of him by the federal government. Syed Hussein Jamal said his brother had checked in regularly with ICE officials, most recently on Jan. 7, mere weeks before his Jan. 24 arrest.

“We just want people to know it wasn’t like he was hiding from them or like he was illegally here,” Syed Hussein Jamal said. “People always make assumptions.”

More often than not, Yuille added, the only solution for people in Jamal’s situation is legislative intervention in the form of a “private bill.” Unlike public bills that apply to an entire jurisdiction, private bills apply to individuals, a group of individuals or a corporate entity.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Republican from Jamal’s congressional district, introduced such a bill Tuesday on the House floor. Her proposed legislation would make Jamal and his wife eligible to receive an immigrant visa or to adjust their status to permanent residency upon filing an application.

That process could take several months, at the very least. Meanwhile, Yuille said she will be watching with interest.

“More often than not, the only hope for someone is to get a private bill,” Yuille said. “And if that’s the only way an immigration system can respond to these compelling cases, it really (shows) just how broken the system is.”