Taseen Jamal, a fourteen-year-old from Lawrence, Kansas, was getting ready for school two weeks ago when his younger sister, Naheen, ran into the kitchen, screaming. A black truck with tinted windows was parked in their driveway, and two men, who identified themselves as officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), were putting their father, Syed, in handcuffs. Originally from Bangladesh, Syed moved to the United States in 1987. He is fifty-five years old, teaches chemistry at a local college, and has three children, all American citizens. “I’d heard about this stuff happening on the news,” Taseen told me. “I just didn’t think it could happen to us.” His father has been in detention since his arrest.
Syed Jamal first came to the U.S. on a student visa, to study at the University of Kansas. After graduating, he stayed in the country to work at Children’s Mercy Hospital, in Kansas City, which sponsored his H-1B visa. Over the next several years, he readjusted his status so that he could pursue graduate work; when his last visa expired, in 2008, he was unable to find another job in time to renew his papers. Since 2012, he’s had regular check-ins with ICE, yet he has been allowed to remain in the country because the Obama Administration, after arresting hundreds of thousands of people in its first few years, decided to stop focussing resources on deporting people without criminal records. Under the Trump Administration, which has called for a massive increase in deportations, people like Jamal are getting rearrested and processed for deportation. ICE made a hundred and forty thousand arrests last year, an increase of thirty per cent compared with the year before, and the number of so-called non-criminal arrests has doubled. Immigrants who have lived productive lives in the U.S. for decades are being rounded up. “There’s no rhyme or reason behind it,” Felicia Escobar, who was an immigration adviser to President Barack Obama, told me.
“When you remove all priorities, it’s like a fisherman who could just get his quota anywhere,” John Sandweg, a former acting head of ICE, told the Washington Post. The stories of recent ICE arrests do not fit any particular pattern. Late last month, a Detroit landscaper named Jorge García, who came to the U.S. with his parents, in 1989, when he was ten, was deported to Mexico. His wife and two children, who are American citizens, stayed behind, in Detroit. This month, a forty-three-year-old Michigan doctor named Lukasz Niec, who came to the United States from Poland in 1979, was arrested and is currently in deportation proceedings. Last week, a thirty-year-old father of five, Jesus Berrones, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a year old, was ordered to be deported, despite the fact that his five-year-old son is undergoing chemotherapy to treat leukemia. ICE is sending out thousands of notice-to-appear requests, documents that are typically preludes to arrest and deportation. Matt Adams, a lawyer with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, in Seattle, told me, “ICE is taking anybody and everybody they can. It’s low-hanging fruit, whoever they can get. These are people who’ve been here for twenty or thirty years.”
Nationwide, ICE has twenty thousand employees and more than four hundred field offices. Every year, the branch of the agency tasked with making immigration arrests, called Enforcement and Removal Operations, detains at least a hundred thousand people—more arrests per year than the F.B.I., the U.S. Marshals, and the Secret Service make combined. Yet the guidelines for whom ICE should target have never been clear; historically, officers have had wide latitude to exercise discretion in individual cases, but the agency’s work has always been influenced by the preferences of the White House. Every Presidential Administration for the last half century has set its own tone on immigration enforcement. Last year, amid reports of newly unfettered ICE activity, John Kelly, who served as the Secretary of Homeland Security before becoming Donald Trump’s chief of staff, vocally defended ICE officers. “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws,” he said. “Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines. My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade.”
Jamal’s arrest illustrates how radically ICE’s approach has shifted. In 2010, after Jamal exhausted his appeals to renew his visa, he received a notice to appear before ICE. A few months later, an immigration judge ordered him to leave the country by October 26, 2011. But in the summer of 2011 a lawyer with the Department of Homeland Security contacted Jamal and informed him that ICE had decided to leave him alone. In March of that year, John Morton, then the head of ICE, had issued a new set of guidelines for officers, telling them to target only people who were a threat to “national security, public safety, and border security.” Jamal held two graduate degrees from American universities (in molecular biosciences and pharmaceutical engineering), he had worked at a hospital, and he was a father of three. According to the lawyer from D.H.S., this made him a “low priority.”
Four of Jamal’s siblings, who, like him, came to the U.S. legally, to study at American schools, have U.S. citizenship. Jamal suffered bad luck. “People don’t realize how hard it is to adjust your status,” his brother, also named Syed, who lives in Arizona, told me. “He tried for years. He tried to do it the right way. I live with the guilt of knowing that I could have gotten my passport sooner, become a citizen faster. I could have tried to sponsor him.”
Under the guidelines set forth by Morton, Jamal became one of thousands of undocumented immigrants whom the federal government allowed to resume a semi-normal life. Every year, Jamal paid a four-hundred-dollar fee in exchange for protection from deportation and a work permit. By 2012, he’d begun teaching as an adjunct at Park University, near Kansas City, and conducting research at hospitals in the area. The Obama Administration, meanwhile, continued to hone its approach to immigration enforcement. In 2014, Jeh Johnson, then the Secretary of Homeland Security, created a more detailed set of priorities for ICE. One of the guidelines directed the agency to prioritize newly arrived immigrants—a measure designed to spare those, like Jamal, who’d lived in the country for decades.
A month after assuming office, Trump cancelled all of the enforcement priorities instituted by the Obama Administration, and he encouraged ICE officers to arrest as many people as they could. As a result, any immigrant who is undocumented is now at risk of being arrested and deported. “It feels like we’re on a totally different level than in previous Administrations, both Democrat and Republican,” Escobar, the former Obama aide, told me. “From the rhetoric that’s out there, from the policies—they have the staff at ICE to do what they want. The will is there. The resources are there. It’s unprecedented.”
When I spoke to Jamal’s son, Taseen, by phone last week, his mother and one of his younger sisters were on the line with us, but he did most of the talking. The family has launched a fund-raising campaign online to finance Syed’s defense. Taseen, who wants to become a lawyer, wrote the text and contacted neighbors and community members to enlist their support. He and his family have stressed that Syed, who is a member of an ethnic minority in Bangladesh, will be in danger if he’s deported.
“I went to school the day my father was arrested,” Taseen told me. “I felt like I was dreaming. It was good to be at school, because I could try to distract myself. But it’s been rough. It’s hard to concentrate in class. I keep thinking about what can happen. What’s painful is not knowing what’s really going on.” He has spoken to his father by phone a few times since he has been in detention. “All my life, I’ve seen my dad as a strong man,” Taseen said. “When he called us, it sounded like he was tearing up. To know that he could be weak, that he was crying, it hurt the most to feel like I couldn’t help him.”
Late last week, a court issued a temporary stay to halt Jamal’s deportation. Increasingly, federal judges across the country seem to be registering their unease with the Trump Administration’s enforcement push by giving immigrants in custody more time to seek temporary relief in court. But these judges cannot rule on the merits of individual immigration cases. “I am increasingly troubled by orders from federal judges halting the deportation of certain groups of individuals, all of which appear to ignore the fact that each alien in question was lawfully ordered removed from the United States,” Thomas Homan, the acting head of ICE, told the Times. Last week, when I asked an agency official about Jamal’s case, he told me, “ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
Just before the federal judge issued his stay, ICE moved Jamal from a Missouri jail to one in El Paso, Texas. On Monday morning, another judge denied Jamal’s request to reopen his case, and he was flown to Hawaii, in preparation for his deportation. Later in the day, a second ruling, issued by a panel known as the Board of Immigration Appeals, granted Jamal another stay in response to an emergency petition from his lawyers. “We don’t know what will happen now,” Jamal’s brother told me. The deportation is delayed for as long as it takes the panel to review the case. As of Tuesday morning, ICE confirmed that Jamal was being held at a facility in Honolulu.