Our fight for Ahmed Hossain

November 15, 2011

Danny Katch describes the campaign that stopped the deportation of Ahmed Hossain.

ON THE morning of Tuesday, November 8, Ahmed Hossain was scheduled to appear for his final deportation hearing at 26 Federal Plaza, the New York headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Instead, Ahmed spent the morning with his wife and two children, discussing with a television reporter from Bangladesh the series of events that led ICE to issue him a one-year deferral the previous Friday.

In a little over a week, Ahmed and a small core of supporters had built a campaign that included hundreds of online signatures, letters of support from a senator and two members of Congress, and a planned Occupy Wall Street (OWS) march of hundreds to a rally called by the Bangladeshi-American Community Council in front of the deportation hearing.

Ahmed will spend the next year hard at work--visiting his lawyer and immigration officials to try to win permanent status and spending every other day behind the wheel of his taxi trying to make up for all the income he has lost in the past month as he fought to stay in the U.S.

Ahmed Hossain with his wife and children
Ahmed Hossain with his wife and children

During that time, he'll be far from free. He is barred from leaving the tri-state area and he has to visit ICE offices once a month--as if he is a flight risk. Ahmed has a house, a decent taxi driver's job and a son who is happy at his elementary school. All he wants to do is stay.

But at least he'll be with his family. After the morning interview with the Bangladeshi network, Ahmed's family got on a bus to go home and 18-month-old Tamanna Hossain popped up in the window to wave good-bye to her daddy. It occurred to Ahmed that this wave--at almost this exact time--could easily have been his daughter's final goodbye.

TWO DAYS before Ahmed got the good news, the Applied Research Center issued a report that in the first six months of 2011 alone, 46,000 mothers and fathers were deported away from their U.S.-born children. In other words, each day the Obama administration, which has doubled the overall rate of deportations from the Bush era, breaks up 250 families.

In this larger context, an extra year for the Hossain family is small drop of color on a vast bleak canvas. But having worked closely with Ahmed on this fight, I think there are elements of his victory that could be a sign of brighter days to come.

For starters, there is the "Obama memo." This summer, the president announced that he was instructing ICE officials to begin using "prosecutorial discretion" to stop deporting undocumented immigrants with clean criminal records. Obama's announcement was widely interpreted as a backdoor way of helping those undocumented students who would have been helped by the "DREAM Act," which Congress rejected last year.

Unfortunately, ICE has shown no signs of slowing down deportations, and Obama has shown little interest in enforcing his own edict.

As is often the case, it's unclear if the gap between Obama's words and actions stems from cynicism, incompetence or indifference. In any case, the administration's plan seems to be to use the memo to win Latino votes next year without having to actually do anything.

But activists are using the president's instructions to build pressure on ICE to stop violating its own orders. In September, supporters of Stony Brook University student Nadia Habib, including the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC), highlighted the Obama memo to win media coverage and support from politicians in their successful fight against the deportation of Nadia and her mother Nazmin.

NYSYLC declined to take up the cause of Ahmed Hossain because he is not a DREAM Act student. But since the Obama memo applies equally to an adult with no criminal record in his 19 years in the U.S., we used the same arguments for Ahmed that NYSYLC had used for Nadia.

Of course, politicians and immigration officials are unlikely to be persuaded by even the most brilliant arguments if they aren't backed up by a show of grassroots support and commitment.

In this regard, Ahmed benefited from having three allies, Mohammed Mujumder of the Bangaldeshi-American Community Council, Mohammad Rashid of Interfaith Harmony and World Peace and myself. We called the rally, contacted elected officials and organized an online support campaign. Moreover, as an active member of both the local Bangla theater community and his taxi drivers' association, Ahmed had many friends and associates who helped get his case in the Bangla press.

Finally, NY1 reporter CeFaan Kim ran the first (and only) story in the mainstream English language media, which helped get Ahmed support first from Rep. Joseph Crowley and then from many other elected officials, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

IT'S POSSIBLE that these efforts alone would have convinced ICE to grant Ahmed a deferral. But when we reached out to Occupy Wall Street, the campaign went to a whole new level.

Ahmed and I went to meetings of the Immigrant Worker Justice and the Direct Action working groups, hoping to win support for his case. We got much more.

The Immigrant Worker Justice committee joined the effort to publicize the rally and contact elected officials. The Direct Action meeting formed a working group to organize a march from Liberty Plaza up to the rally, and then started making plans for a post-rally teach-in about immigrants and the 99 percent.

Over the next couple of days, Ahmed's case went viral, not electronically but face to face, through the warren of overlapping committees that make up OWS. The march was supported and publicized in the People of Color and Labor Outreach working groups. Ahmed planned to announce it at the General Assembly Sunday night. There's no telling how big the march would have been. It's possible that one reason ICE caved on Friday is that they didn't want to find out.

Occupy Wall Street probably did not play the main role in winning Ahmed's deferral. But the outpouring of support and energy that he received in a matter of days shows the potential that exists for future struggles.

The Occupy movement in many cities has the potential to bring mass support to communities that have been under siege for years and expose anti-immigrant demagogues who claim to care about "American" jobs, but who wholeheartedly support the real job-destroyers--the 1 percent.

The immigrant justice movement in turn has the potential to deepen Occupy's roots inside the 99 percent and to bring to this new movement its powerful traditions of solidarity and struggle. After all, the first general strike of our generation did not occur in Oakland last week, but nationwide on the May 1, 2006, the "Day Without an Immigrant."

The rebellion youth mass civil disobedience that has been Occupy's hallmark was anticipated in last year's wave of student protesters who openly proclaimed themselves "undocumented and unafraid."

The explosion of the Occupy movement can rejuvenate the fight for immigrant justice that has been brutally repressed in recent years by the mass deportations of the Bush and now Obama administrations.

In New York City, the ICE headquarters where Ahmed Hossain was to face deportation is located only 10 blocks north of the OWS encampment. How many others are being ripped apart from their families, their friends and their jobs in that building every day? Perhaps it's time for Occupy Wall Street to find out.

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