by Debbie Coleman-Topi
A Kansas City area man whose immigration story captured international headlines this year, says the America that first welcomed him on a student visa here in the 1980s, is not the same as the one that led him to be locked in jail for months and nearly deported.
In a talk last Tuesday at Park University in Parkville where he briefly taught, Sayed Jamal recounted his lengthy immigration story.
Jamal, 55, admittedly and unknowingly, committed a few mis-steps in the complicated legal immigration system that led to his jeopardized status in this country, he explained to an audience of about 250 people, which included Park University students, faculty, staff and community members.
Erik Bergrud, Park's vice president for university engagement, said in an emailed statement the event was “an opportunity to educate students and the general public about the personal lives touched by public policy.”
The presentation was part of Park's “Year of Engagement” designed to reflect Park's core values (accountability, civility and respect, excellence, global citizenship, inclusivity and integrity), spokesman Brad Biles said.
Jack MacLennan, assistant professor of political science, moderated the hour-long event about Jamal's experience. MacLennan, a Canadian native, also has negotiated the often-confusing immigration path. University officials also felt compelled to tell Jamal's story because of a brief history, which includes his service as an adjunct faculty member before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents (ICE) arrested him in January outside his Lawrence, Kan. area home.
He was in his car, preparing to drive his daughter to school when ICE agents handcuffed him and took him into custody.
Jamal's student visa lapsed during the 1990s, after funding ran out for research he was conducting at area colleges and universities. He returned to his home country, married and re-entered the U.S. during the early 2000s on a work visa. However, Jamal said during a telephone interview he unknowingly overstayed his time in Bangladesh by a few days and, in addition, his visa expired without his knowledge, leaving his legal status in limbo.
When asked if America the way he first experienced it as a Rockhurst College student in 1987 had changed, Jamal said: “It has changed, sadly, a little bit.”
He was held in jail for months, including some spending some time inside the Platte County Jail as an ICE prisoner.
After serving jail time away from his wife and three children, Jamal was aboard a flight back to his native Bangladesh when he learned that a judge had ordered his temporary release while his case is being reviewed. The airplane had stopped in Hawaii to refuel for the overseas trip when he was flown back to America.
The legal action followed months of protests and a fierce campaign by neighbors and his family, which includes his wife three American-born children. In addition, Park University officials, faculty, staff and students joined in a letter-writing campaign to garner his release as he spent time at five different prisons, including his time in the Platte County jail.
Some supporters also held rallies and set up a GoFundMe that raised more than $75,000 to cover legal fees.
Although he remains free since a judge reversed his deportation, The Board of Immigration Appeals, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is reviewing the case. A judge will set a date for his case to be heard during a preliminary hearing Tuesday, Nov. 27, Jamal said.
Jamal's attorney, Rekha Sharma-Crawford, a well-known immigration lawyer, declined to speculate about the court's decision on her client's status.
“I always say I never predict the judge,” she said during a telephone interview.
She did, however, state that while Jamal was admitted on a student visa, he has no green card and therefore no permanent status in this country and could be granted such status, or could be deported.
She explained that every immigration case is different, and decisions appear random.
“It's kind of like not everybody who speeds gets a ticket,” she said.
Jamal elaborated when he said, “People's experiences can vary wildly on immigration…it is approved for some people,” he said. “I just slipped through the cracks.”
Despite his immigration trials, Jamal was complimentary to Americans he has encountered.
“Americans are very practical people,” he said during the presentation adding, “they don't generalize…most people don't treat me differently because I'm a Muslim,” he said.
When he responded to a question from the audience about whether fear drives immigration policy, he offered his opinion for the change in attitudes among some Americans. He partly blamed advances in technology, mainly social media. Because of the way social media works, it's too easy for people to become polarized in their views and not even encounter differing viewpoints. He urged those listening to the presentation to temper their political views.
“There has to be a human, moral aspect to the law,” he said, encouraging all to “seek a middle ground.”
Jamal told the group that while his experience is extreme, immigration law “is fluid” and “a global issue.“ He summarized, “I think common sense should prevail.”