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Model Neighbor But No Citizen: Undocumented Kansas Teacher in Detention

Syed Ahmed Jamal has been held in Platte County jail in Missouri since February.

In the month since Syed Ahmed Jamal, originally from Bangladesh, was arrested by immigration agents, his case has sparked outrage and support in a community that had known him as an involved teacher and parent for over a decade.

“This is exactly the ideal citizen that we should be supporting in his efforts to stay here,” one woman commented on an online petition for his release.

“Paperwork, miscommunication, and bureaucracy shouldn't mean our community is deprived of intelligent, hard working, contributing immigrants,” wrote another.

The science teacher in Kansas was arrested while getting into his car; he sits in a county jail, having been transferred from Kansas to Hawaii to Missouri.

An adjunct instructor at a local college, he was undocumented, having overstayed an expired work visa.

“I think it touched a nerve because here he’s a very well respected person in the community, everybody knows him,” his brother, Syed Hussain Jamal, told VOA.

“He ran for a school board membership, he’s always at the PTAs, all the parents know him ... so the community realized, you know, it can happen to someone we care about — we love.” Syed Hussain Jamal recently obtained U.S. citizenship.

Syed Ahmed Jamal and his wife Angela have three children born and raised in the United States.
Syed Ahmed Jamal and his wife Angela have three children born and raised in the United States.

Visa gap

Since the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era policy that distinguished between criminal and non-criminal undocumented immigrants, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has picked up an increasing number of immigrants.

According to figures released by ICE, 13,548 non-criminal undocumented people were arrested between October and December — nearly triple the figure over the last three months of the Obama presidency.

In a statement released on the case, ICE said that Jamal had overstayed two visas in the past, but came to its attention in September of 2012 after failing to leave the country during a window given to him by a judge after his visa expired. Jamal was required to periodically check in with ICE while the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) reviewed his appeal of the removal order.

“On May 21, 2013, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) dismissed Jamal’s appeal of his removal order. To effect this removal order, deportation officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] arrested Jamal outside his residence on Jan. 24, 2018. He is currently in ICE custody,” ICE said in a statement.

Jamal’s family has only been able to visit him once, and were unable to speak to him through the glass partition. (E. Sarai/VOA)
Jamal’s family has only been able to visit him once, and were unable to speak to him through the glass partition. (E. Sarai/VOA)

But Jamal’s family and lawyers say that he was initially told by officials that he was protected under an F-1 student visa as he pursued a Ph.D. at Kansas University, only to have the visa revoked after he enrolled in classes because he had waited too long to apply.

“At one point he was advised that he was in valid status by the government which, later on, they revoked that finding,” Jamal’s immigration attorney, Rekha Sharma-Crawford, told VOA.

“The history [of his case] is complicated,” she added.

Jamal’s case in particular drew national attention because of his strong academic background and history of teaching at multiple Kansas universities.

Jamal first came to the United States on a student visa in 1986, and since then obtained an undergraduate degree, as well as two Masters’ in molecular biology and pharmacology. In recent years, he taught at a number of local universities as an adjunct instructor - most recently at Park University in Missouri.

“We take great pride in the process that we go through hiring adjunct faculty,” Michelle Myers, interim provost of Park University told VOA.

“Mr. Jamal was unique in that he had come to visit with us in the fall of last year to see how the classes are, kind of find out who Park University is and our students. So it’s someone who’s really going above and beyond the call and of course we take notice of that.”

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Model Citizen Without Citizenship: Undocumented Science Teacher Detained
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​But Jamal, who began his employment at Park University this semester, had only overseen two lab courses before he was arrested.

Before his work as an adjunct instructor, he had worked in a lab which, until it ran out of funding, sponsored his work visa.

“Of course he was worried, and he was trying to do things to adjust his status,” his brother said.

“He was worried because it takes time. He was trying to exhaust all paths to make adjustments be it getting into a program, be it getting another job — whatever it was he was trying all those avenues.”

But the gap between the expiration of Jamal’s work visa and his application for a student visa alerted ICE.

Jamal is scheduled to appear in court on March 20 to challenge his detention.