Astoria resident Taimur Hussain was released last week after being held in immigration detention for over nine months.
But while a lawyer from the Forest Hills firm that represented him, Naresh Gehi, said his family was “overjoyed” to hear the news, it’s been a long and terrifying time for Hussain’s two daughters and his wife. Gehi was one of many who testified at a hearing on immigration detention centers held by Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) this month.
Dromm and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio have called on the Department of Justice to investigate alleged abuses at these centers, one of which is located in Jamaica.
For the nine months Hussain was gone, his daughter Sanjana Hussain, 9, marked the time with birthdays: hers passed, along with her dad’s and her sister’s.
Hussain was detained while facing deportation for overstaying his visa. He came to the United States from Bangladesh 16 years ago and never left. According to Gehi, he has no criminal record. Until his detention, he lived with his family in Astoria and worked full-time as a chef.
“One day it was Father’s Day and I made stuff for him and was really sad I couldn’t give it to my dad,” Sanjana said.
In the last decade, the number of children with U.S. citizenship but undocumented parents has nearly doubled, according to a 2009 Pew Hispanic Center report — now, more than four million American children have at least one undocumented parent.
The increase in these types of families has highlighted the long-standing issue of whether undocumented parents should receive leniency because they have U.S. citizen children.
According to David Thronson, an immigration law professor at Michigan State, the argument that a parent’s deportation will harm his or her children is one of the most frequently used, and repeatedly dismissed, arguments in deportation hearings.
In an article he wrote for the Nevada Law Journal, Thronson pointed to multiple immigration cases in the United States circuit courts where, “as a starting point, courts are quick to assert that ‘[c]itizen children have, of course, an absolute right to remain in the United States’”.
But lawyers and activists have argued that deporting the parents of American children impacts their rights as U.S. citizens, because deporting their parents all but guarantees the children will have to follow. The courts have repeatedly ruled against this notion.
The U.S. attorney general is given the authority to cancel an immigrant’s deportation if the person has been in the United States continuously for 10 years or more, has not been convicted of any crimes and can establish that the removal would create “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” for a spouse or child who is a U.S. citizen, according to the immigration reforms of 1996.
But repeated court decisions in deportation cases for “mixed-status” families have set a high standard to prove “hardship.” Arguing that an undocumented parent’s deportation will deprive citizen children of economic or educational advantages has not met the “hardship” standard in court.
Immigration officials can also defer an ultimate decision on a deportation based on new guidelines the Obama administration issued on June 17, 2011. The directives, outlined by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton, gave immigration judges the ability to use “prosecutorial discretion” when reviewing the current stack of 300,000 deportation cases.
Additionally, a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, Zadvydas v. Davis, concluded that the government needed to justify detaining an immigrant for over six months by displaying either an intent to deport in the near future or extraordinary circumstances.
Immigration detainees being held for long periods of time without any charges is one of the many issues Dromm and de Blasio would like investigated.
“This is a textbook case of someone who should have been released,” Gehi said. But as far as why his client was released last week, Gehi said “even Homeland Security has not answered that question.”
Gehi believes the media attention on Hussain’s case in particular had something to do with his release, in addition to the legal team that assisted him.
“We had the finest law firms of New York working on this case,” he noted.
In the nine months since their father was detained, the Hussain children lived with the day-to-day uncertainty of what would happen to their family.
Without their father’s income, the family had to move out of their Astoria home to stay with friends.
Sabreena Hussain, 13, remembered how sad it made her dad when he couldn’t send a card to his youngest daughter on her birthday. Sanjana recalled the first time she visited her father in detention. She tried to take him home, not understanding why he couldn’t come.
“I never saw my father cry like that,” Sabreena said. “I don’t like seeing him cry. It’s very emotional.”
Beyond the daily uncertainty and turmoil that Hussain’s detention caused, Sabreena was often concerned about the possibility that her entire family would be uprooted and moved to Bangladesh.
While Hussain’s deportation would not mean the rest of the family would have to leave the country, Sabreena Hussain believed the family would follow Hussain if he left.
It is difficult to estimate how many children follow deported parents, though Aarti Kohli, director of immigration policy at the University of California Berkeley Law School, found that if both parents are deported, the children follow if they are younger than teenagers. If one parent is deported, families frequently separate, with the non-deported parent staying with the children.
“I think there is no question this has a deep impact on these children,” Kohli said, adding that she often hears of immigrants seeking lawyers to help set up guardianship plans in the event they are deported.
And it’s a fear that will continue to hang over the Hussain family, as his case is not settled yet. According to Gehi, Hussain will have to continue to report to immigration authorities.
Hussain and his wife, Sabina, originally came to the United States in 1995 at a time when the ruling political party in Bangladesh claimed elections were rigged and opposition parties called for a neutral government to take over. Hussain applied for political asylum in the United States, but was denied.
“Life is very harsh there,” Sabreena said, translating her mother’s Bangladeshi. “It’s not very safe there. They come after you. People die. Their treatment is not as good as here.”
Fourteen years and two children later, Hussain approached a lawyer about reopening the asylum case, which was again denied. After he filed for an appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals, the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration law, his case was referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
At a deportation hearing in November 2010, Hussain was granted a six-month extension. At his second hearing on March 10, 2011, he was detained.
Sabreena remembers getting home from school around 4 p.m. that day and being curious why her father wasn’t home from his hearing yet. The next morning, the Hussain family found out Hussain was locked up in a detention center in Elizabeth, NJ.
And just like that, Hussain’s children were without their father.
“When my father was around, we used to hang out a lot,” Sabreena said as she played with a folder of cards she has written her dad on various holidays. “I was able to tell him stuff. We would go out to lunch. Now we don’t really go outside places. It’s really sad. I don’t really do anything now.”
The children got to see their father roughly once a week, whenever a family member or friend was free to take them on the one-hour drive to New Jersey.
When the family could deposit money in an account for Hussain to make calls, his daughters got to talk to him up to twice a day for as little as a minute.
And while Hussain was released just in time for Christmas, in the New Year, Gehi said, the “battle continues.”