Kamal Essaheb And His Two Brothers: Immigrant Success Stories Face Pending Deportation
This is the personal statement of Kamal Essaheb, a young man who has lived in the United States since he was 11 years old. He is currently enrolled in the prestigious Stein Scholars Program in Public Interest Law and Ethics at Fordham Law School and has served as a legal intern at the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families since June of 2004. At the same time, he is desperately fighting a deportation order that threatens to evict him and his younger brothers from their homes here and send them off to a land they barely remember.
I am a second year law student at Fordham University and a Stein Scholar in Public Interest Law and Ethics. I am also facing deportation. In January of 2003, my younger twin brothers and I, natives of Morocco who came here as children, complied with Special Registration which required male citizens sixteen years of age and older of 25 countries (24 predominantly Muslim countries and North Korea) to register their presence in the United States with federal immigration authorities during the winter of 2002-2003. During our registration, immigration authorities recognized that we had overstayed our visitor visas on which we had entered the United States over a decade earlier and that we had never obtained further immigrations status. We were placed in removal proceedings and are likely to receive a final deportation order later this year.
Until Special Registration, my brothers and I lived the relatively uneventful lives of many immigrant families. My father is a cab driver and my mother is a homemaker. We are a Queens working class family. There have been winters we have not been able to afford to fix a broken boiler or pay for heating; there have been months where we slept on the ground, not having any mattresses. We are, however, a close-knit and hard-working family and grateful for the opportunities we have had.
My story begins in 1992. Just after my eleventh birthday, my parents decided to move the family from Casablanca to Queens. My twin brothers were only nine at the time. Although they knew we would struggle, our parents made it clear that we were moving to the land of freedom. At the time, my brothers and I just hoped we would get to see Disneyland one day.
I remember my very first day of school. I woke up early that day to sharpen my pencils and pack my school bag with blank paper. As my parents walked me to school through the streets of Astoria, I felt nervous, not quite knowing what to expect or what would be expected of me—I had had little more than a week’s exposure to the English language. Still, I was excited about the thought of seeing my neighbors in school, and the prospect of making new friends.
I was placed in an English as a Second Language (ESL) section. My classmates came from all the over the world: Argentina, India, Poland, South Korea. Incredibly, despite our different backgrounds and limited English, we got along. I suppose that what we shared was more powerful in defining our relationships than were our differences: we were all Americans in the making.
My French and Arabic quickly began to fade, to be replaced by English as my primary language. Within months, I was out of ESL and in an ordinary sixth grade class. A sudden obsession with baseball developed as did an interest in talk radio. A Queens accent somehow snuck in. I began to see myself become much more like my friends here, and much less like my friends back in Morocco. I became (in all but the legal sense of the word) American.
For years I had no understanding at all about our immigration situation. My first encounter with the issue came in my senior year at Bronx Science High School. At the time, I wanted to be an engineer. My favorite class was A.P. Physics. I was also thrilled by my Principles of Engineering class where we got to build model bridges. I remember meeting with my college counselor, Dr. Nash. She asked for my social security number. I did not even know what a social security number was, so I simply said that I would ask my parents and get back to her.
That night, I asked my mother and was told that I did not have a social security number and could not get one because of our immigration situation. When I reported back to Dr. Nash, she let me know that I would not be eligible for financial aid and would have to limit my college applications to schools that my family would be able to afford out of pocket. I later found out that my parents’ green card sponsor had exploited my father’s labor and mismanaged the paperwork involved with the immigration process, leaving everyone in our family without immigration status. At the time, I understood little about our immigration situation. What I do remember is that after having spent the summer researching engineering schools, the news that most of the schools that had caught my attention were suddenly off limits came as an unexpected blow.
Education, however, was too important for my parents to give up on so they worked even harder, and were able to send me--and, the following year, my brothers--to Queens College. While there, my interests broadened. I served as editor-in-chief of the school’s paper, the Queens College Quad, and graduated Cum Laude with a degree in economics.
While in college, I had a growing, if still foggy, sense of our family’s immigration situation. In sociology class my sophomore year, my classmates enthusiastically and constantly discussed the presidential election, the first that they would vote in. I felt awkward and out of place, but figured that it was just a matter of time before I could become a citizen and join with them in conversations about the direction of our country. Naively, I thought that employee sponsorship upon graduation was all that it would take.
At the beginning of my junior year, just across the East River, the World Trade Center was attacked. I remember groggily waking up that morning to radio news coverage of the disaster. I ran to the television to see what was happening and was overwhelmed by images of the towers in flames. I immediately wondered if anyone I knew was in those buildings. Neither my mom nor my dad was home. I woke up my brothers and asked if they knew where our parents were. Countless phone calls were made and received before we knew that our parents were safe. A friend called, frantic–her mother worked in downtown Manhattan. It was not until late that night that her mother made it home. While I did not lose an immediate friend or relative, I shared the sense of loss and horror that all New Yorkers felt that day. At the time, I could not begin to imagine how much the horrific terrorist attacks would lead to the devastation of my family, threatening to wipe out a decade of hard work and sacrifice based on a faith in and commitment to America and her ideals.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, my family felt a growing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim atmosphere, but luckily suffered no physical racist attacks. The first direct blow came with Special Registration in the winter of 2003. I cannot quite remember how I first heard about it—maybe my father talked about it or maybe I heard something on the news. At first, no one was quite sure if Special Registration applied to my family so I decided to figure it out; I googled it. I found the Special Registration notice in the Federal Register, read it and realized that my father, my brothers and I would have to report to our local Immigration and Naturalization Service office at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan, which we did. We were all placed in removal proceedings.
Even with the act of registering amid chaos among hundreds of other men and boys, none of us could quite believe that our lives were about to be unalterably changed. I continued with my law school applications and my brother Hassan took the GREs; life went on. A few months after we registered, however, we were put into removal proceedings and finally, after half a lifetime of living in America, I began to investigate and understand the precarious nature of our immigration situation.
That summer, I gave myself a crash course in immigration law. I went to every legal clinic that I could find for Special Registrants. Unable to find an attorney, I filed on my own the first part of an application for lawful permanent resident status based on my family’s Arab-American community newspaper, arguing that a newspaper that fostered communication between Arabic-speakers in America and the nation as a whole was vitally important in an era of growing distrust. The immigration judge presiding over our removal proceedings delayed making a decision on deportation pending the adjudication of the petition. That petition was recently denied.
(The case against my father was dismissed as a matter of discretion on a technical point and no new proceedings were initiated. My father, therefore, does not face an imminent threat of deportation.)
Despite the turmoil my family faced, I began Fordham Law School in the Stein Scholars Program in Public Interest Law and Ethics a few months after the removal proceedings against us began. Bewildered and overwhelmed by the events of the proceeding months which had shattered the constancy and comfort of life as I had known it, I struggled for normalcy and continued to work towards my goals. After my first year of law school, I worked as an intern with Sanctuary for Families, an organization which provides shelter, counseling, and legal services to battered women and their children and spent the summer assisting Arabic-speaking domestic violence victims. When the summer was over I applied for a Domestic Violence Fellowship, offered by the New York State Women’s Bar Association, to continue my work with Sanctuary. I was honored to be the first male to be awarded the Fellowship. I want to continue serving disadvantaged members of New York’s Arab-speaking immigrant communities upon graduation.
Today, my brother Hassan is halfway through a masters degree program in financial engineering at Columbia University. My brother Housseine, a Queens College graduate like Hassan and me, just passed his third actuarial exam and is looking for work in the insurance field. Every few months, we go to a master calendar hearing and hope that this will not be the hearing where we are ordered deported. If deported the law will prevent us from returning to our homes here for at least 10 years, and likely much longer than that. We live on borrowed time, never quite knowing where we will be six months from now. We are terrified at the idea of returning to a country we do not know where we are barely literate in one of the languages of the state, Arabic, and do not speak the other, French. If forced to return, we would be like foreigners struggling to make out a meager existence in a country that we can identify as ours not through intimate knowledge of language, custom, culture or understanding but by passport alone.
Despite everything that has happened to us, we still love and believe in America; we are proud to be part of this great country and our great city. We are still following the latest acquisitions to the New York Yankee pitching line-up. We are still excited about the recent release of Seinfeld’s first season on DVD. And we still have hope that we will not be banished from our adopted home.
Kamal Essaheb is a 23 year old law student who has just completed his second year of law school at Fordham where he a Stein Scholar in Public Interest Law and Ethics. Upon graduation, he hopes to become a civil rights attorney. Readers who wish to support the request of Kamal Essaheb and his brothers for the favorable exercise of prosecutorial discretion can write a letter addressed to Secretary Chertoff asking that proceedings be terminated against the Essaheb brothers. Such letters should be faxed to his attorney, Julie Dinnerstein, at 212 566 0344. Model letters of support are available upon request by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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