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Photographer known for images of bald eagles deported back to war zone
Hari Sreenivasan: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, deportations of undocumented immigrants and the policies surrounding the process, were a regular part of news coverage.
During the current crisis, news about deportations and immigration--like many other issues -- has not been as prominent. But one man's recent removal from the United States caught the attention of his own community and beyond.
NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Tom Casciato has our story.
Tom Casciato: Peekskill, New York sits on the eastern bank of the Hudson River, a former factory town now more a haven for artists. It's about an hour's commute from New York City. Among its many charms: it's a great place to see wintering bald eagles. These shots belong to a notable local photographer, who shared them on a popular Facebook page. His name is Hazaea Alomaisi. He's known by his nickname: Anwar.
Jennifer Fleming: My girlfriend and I were here photographing eagles and I have a professional camera that I have no idea how to use. He noticed and he came over and he showed me how to use it and what settings to have, which lens to put on. He was very, very nice.
Melissa Cortes-Candia: He was just like that. He was a lovable person, and very caring, very considerate of others.
Colin Smith: I first met Anwar while he was working at a local gas station.
Tom Casciato: Most people don't make friends with their gas station attendant.
Tom Casciato: This gathering of Alomaisi's friends in the bird-loving community took place shortly before New York's Governor ordered the end of social gatherings. They came together to talk about him because suddenly he was gone. He had spent 22 years in the United States, living, working and paying taxes they said. The fact that he had never become a citizen wasn't an issue.
Andy Starr: I often thought that, you know, here I am, a Jewish guy. OK. Pretty much. Born and raised in this area with a Muslim as now one of my closest friends.
Tom Casciato: Andy Starr is a sales and marketing consultant and wildlife photographer who often went out taking pictures with Alomaisi.
Andy Starr: I don't know the legalities, but from a civil rights standpoint, from a human rights standpoint, I think they got the wrong guy.
Tom Casciato: The legalities are complicated. Alomaisi had first been told to leave the States in 2005, but the order was not enforced.
Camille Mackler: At that time, it was not uncommon for somebody to go through the process of, you know, having a hearing in front of an immigration judge and ending up with a deportation order, with a removal order and not leaving.
Tom Casciato: Attorney Camille Mackler directs the nonprofit Immigrant Advocates Response Collective. She says enforcement has changed from president to president.
Camille Mackler: So during the Obama administration, we really saw a huge increase in enforcement against immigrants. I mean, you'll remember President Obama was very famously labeled the "Deporter in Chief."
Tom Casciato: But under Obama, ICE's priority was to deport persons who posed a threat to public safety, or were more recent arrivals. Others were treated more leniently.
Camille Mackler: And so individuals who had been here for a long time, even living with deportation orders, but had sort of kept living here, kept contributing to their communities, kept growing their ties to the United States, were seen as a lower priority and therefore allowed to stay.
Tom Casciato: In 2011, Alomaisi received what's called an "order of supervision," meaning he would now check in regularly with an immigration officer. But regular check-ins weren't necessarily enough when President Trump took office. ICE's new mandate was to deport the undocumented. Period. Last fall Andy Starr accompanied his friend on a trip to the immigration office.
Andy Starr: I saw a ledger that he had to sign on a regular basis with immigration. Every six months, nine months, 12 months, he would have to go down to Federal Plaza, meet with his caseworker and sign it. He went to sign in and his caseworker told me to come back in 30 days. And he thought that was unusual. So he was thinking something's up.
Tom Casciato: Something was up. In January another friend of Alomaisi's, the Mayor of Peekskill Andre Rainey, received an unexpected phone call.
Andre Rainey: And he was just saying, "hey, you know, Andre, I need your help man. I'm in a correctional facility in New Jersey and ICE picked me up." "ICE picked you up for what? What are they picking you up for?" I And then I got the call Tuesday, the next day that Anwar was gone.
Tom Casciato: Alomaisi says despite telling ice officials he feared for his safety if he was returned to Yemen, he was deported in late January before he had a chance to see a lawyer to a country in the midst of civil war.
Hazaea "Anwar" Alomaisi: Even the Animals here in Yemen are paying the price. Even the animals here are paying the price. It's the war and it's very sad.
Tom Casciato: Do you hope to return now to the United States?
Hazaea "Anwar" Alomaisi: Yes. It is like a dream. It's like going to heaven. It's like you're going from hell to heaven.
Tom Casciato: In the States, Alomaisi had been active protesting human rights abuses in Yemen. He says that makes him a target now, and his life is in danger.
Hazaea "Anwar" Alomaisi: I have to hide, and I thank God my uncles has friends over here. They can take me every morning from one place to another place. And I stay in the back seat and the car has tint.
Tom Casciato: Alomaisi's deportation drew national attention when it occurred. Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer took up his cause on Twitter. His lawyer says he has rights under U.S. and international law, Kai De Graaf.
Tom Casciato: Doesn't the United States have the right to deport someone living in the United States who is not a United States citizen?
Kai De Graaf: Yes, the United States does have legal rights, to deport those people who are unlawfully present within its borders. At the same time, the United States is a signatory to an international treaty. Our legal claim is that based on the change countries circumstances in Yemen, he is eligible under the law to seek protection in the form of political asylum, withholding of removal and for relief under the Convention Against Torture. And he asserted a claim that he should be provided a hearing under the law to test his prima facie case. And he was denied that hearing.
Tom Casciato: A former Obama Security Official and now a congressional candidate in Alomaisi's former district, Evelyn Farkas, is backing Alomaisi as well.
Evelyn Farkas: So my team looked into who Anwar Alomaisi is. And we found nothing in his record that we could ascertain was problematic. In fact, on the contrary, he was here for 20 years. He attended Westchester County Community College. He was an avid nature lover. He was a photographer. He actually once rescued a snowy owl and returned it to a safe sanctuary.
Tom Casciato: We're in the middle of a pandemic, a national crisis. Why should we be paying attention to this story right now?
Evelyn Farkas: Because, first of all, international law is most important when we're in a crisis. This is something that I've learned as a national security professional, We put them in place so that we would have human rights guaranteed even during wartime, even during a pandemic. And, yes, we're distracted by other things, but it doesn't mean that this isn't as important. In fact, I would argue it's more important.
Tom Casciato: So what are you asking for specifically now?
Kai De Graaf: We filed a motion to reopen with the Board of Immigration Appeals, and we're asking that he be provided a hearing. Secondly, we are also requesting ICE to parole Anwar back into the United States so that he'd be given the hearing that he had requested while he was being forced on an airplane and deported back to Yemen.
Tom Casciato: The U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Agency, ICE, did not respond to Newshour Weekend's request for an interview. The Department of Justice's Board of Immigration Appeals responded that it does not grant interviews. But cases like Alomaisi's are hard to reopen, says attorney Camille Mackler.
Camille Mackler: Once that removal order has been executed, once the individual is out of the United States it is incredibly difficult to have them granted, because often the government agencies will take the position that they no longer have jurisdiction over that individual. So on its face. It's a very, very, very difficult case to win.
Tom Casciato: Alomaisi is one of at least some 3.7 million persons deported during the Obama and Trump administrations, just through 2018. No doubt he's not the first of them to love America. But he may be the most accomplished at documenting its national symbol.
Hazaea "Anwar" Alomaisi: And bald eagles are my favorite birds, and I love them so much. And I spend all day by the river in the cold weather just waiting to get them. And just the way they fly. They just, you know I spend almost from sunrise to sunset. I never get tired of them. I can never get tired.
Andre Rainey: How ironic, takin' pictures of the bald eagle the American symbol, it's just --
Tom Casciato: He was not a citizen of the United States, but he resided here.
Andre Rainey: Your paperwork may not say so but we consider him a citizen. Paperwork doesn't always say everything.
Melissa Cortes-Candia: It's hard. Just the fact that he's in danger. His life is in danger every day. And knowing that there's nothing that you can do. I messaged him yesterday and asked him if he wanted me to mention anything on his behalf. He just said that he wants to go home as soon as possible.