Why is ICE targeting Siham Byah?

December 12, 2017

Shireen Akram-Boshar and Ryan Roche report on the case of a Boston activist facing deportation--and possible collusion between the U.S. and Moroccan governments.

SIHAM BYAH arrived at the ICE office in Burlington, Massachusetts, on November 7 for what she was told would be a routine check-in to confirm her address and employment status. Instead, she was arrested, detained and informed that she would soon be deported to Morocco.

Siham is a 40-year-old activist and single mother who has lived in the Boston area since 1999. She has an eight-year-old son who was at his elementary school at the time of her arrest and has been in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) ever since.

Siham has no criminal record, she has a child who is a U.S. citizen, and she has been employed while in the U.S. Normally, when cases like hers are chosen by ICE for deportation proceedings, targeted individuals are instructed to return to the ICE office with a plane ticket to their country of citizenship within 30 days.

Siham was afforded no such leniency. When asked for an explanation by her lawyer Matt Cameron, ICE agents said that the decision to target her for arrest and deportation came directly from Washington, D.C., and thus did not need to follow the standard protocol.

Siham Byah speaks at a rally for Palestinian rights in Boston
Siham Byah speaks at a rally for Palestinian rights in Boston (International Socialist Organization-Boston | Facebook)

She has now been in detention for over a month, facing inhumane treatment, psychological abuse and frequent relocation. "I'm being treated like a criminal," Siham told us in a phone interview from Bristol County Jail last week. "I know without a doubt that this is a politically motivated attack against me."

SIHAM IS at the intersection of the Trump administration's aggressive and persistent attacks against Muslims, immigrants and activists.

Born and raised in Morocco, she came to the U.S. fleeing an abusive marriage, and soon became a central part of the Boston-area activist community. In the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, Siham became well-known for her unbeatable spirit and readiness to fight against all forms of injustice, in the U.S. and abroad.

Siham was vocal in her support of the 2011 uprisings that spread across the Middle East and North Africa, from Egypt to Tunisia, and remained opposed to Morocco's monarchy even when this led to threats against her. Siham also spoke at protests against Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

Most recently, she voiced her support for the Rif movement in Morocco, the latest episode in the country's uprising that began last October and has remained a point of optimism for continued struggle in the region. On her Facebook account and her YouTube channel, Siham spoke in solidarity with the movement's political prisoners, and with the mass protests spreading across the country demanding reform, social justice, democracy and equality.

Siham's outspoken criticism and fearless activism has made her a thorn in the side of both the Moroccan and U.S. governments.

In a 2012 YouTube video from the Occupy Boston encampment, Siham discussed being targeted by agents of the Moroccan government for her activism. She was served with a court order from Morocco, demanding that she return and face charges of treason for her activism against the Moroccan monarchy and criticism of Morocco's long history of human rights abuses.

She received threats online and was followed by Moroccan agents in the Boston area, who slashed her tires.

Writing from detention this past month, Siham explains she is "coming close to facing my worst nightmare: being a political prisoner in Morocco, where rape and torture are rampant while awaiting a sentence of death for sure...I fear for my safety and livelihood, and that of Naseem [her son] and others at the hands of the vindictive, oppressive totalitarian regime or one of their hired thugs."

ICE agents and local officers continue to threaten her with immediate deportation to Morocco for herself--and even the deportation of her son, who is a U.S. citizen. It should be noted that the U.S. and Morocco are allies. As Siham told us over the phone, her experience and treatment over the past month has made her realize that human rights are not only a sham in Morocco, but here as well.

SIHAM IS currently being held in Bristol County House of Corrections in Southeastern Massachusetts, which is overseen by the notorious Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, a Trump-supporting bigot who made headlines earlier this year when he offered the slave labor of his inmates to President Trump for the construction of the border wall.

Siham was placed in a filthy cell, splattered with blood and human waste. She has been denied access to medication that she needs for a stomach issue, and access to basic sanitary and hygiene supplies. She was forced to abandon a hunger strike in order to find out who had custody of her son.

In her own harrowing accounts of her arrest and detention, she writes: "I have been having these severe stomach pain bouts lasting about 20-30 minutes each that put me on the floor in the fetal position, crying in agony, while my face turns white and sweat runs down my spine. I have let the officer know each and every time, to which they always tell me to just 'drink water'!"

Other conditions of her detention in the jail are equally alarming. Siham has been woken up in the middle of the night and told to prepare for her deportation, moved between locations without being able to contact her family or her attorney and then returned to the Bristol County jail.

In a letter dated "Day 14, Monday, November 20," she writes:

At 5 AM, I got the Hannibal Lecter treatment AGAIN. Cuffs, shackles and the works, this time, I wasn't so shocked really; still feeling humiliated and dehumanized, but not shocked... Aren't these the same people who locked me in solitary with no heat, denied me attorney contact, family contact, finding out Naseem's whereabouts, meds and heat ALL BECAUSE I EXERCISED MY RIGHT to enter a hunger strike? What am I expecting? Any illusion I ever had about basic human rights has quickly been rectified!

ICE agents who transport her offer conflicting statements about where she is going and what will happen to her. In another one of her letters from jail, she writes that after speaking to other agents in a separate room, an ICE agent returned to advise her to refuse to be transported for deportation.

This conflicting information adds to the stress of her detention. One moment, they are heartlessly targeting her for deportation on direct orders from Washington, D.C., and the next, they are offering her advice on how to avoid being deported.

SIHAM'S DETENTION and possible deportation have rallied support from multiple activist groups in the Boston area since her arrest. There have been protests and petitions, along with meetings with the Massachusetts Attorney General's office and local politicians. "We believe that if we organize broad support at the local level, we can win," says Kay Sullivan of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which has been active around this case.

Recent victories in different parts of the country show that while immigrants targeted by the Trump administration face a difficult struggle, when we fight we can win.

Vermont activists Kike Balcazar, Zully Palacios and Alex Carrillo Sanchez faced deportation this spring for their organizing of immigrant farmworkers in Migrant Justice. A combination of mass marches, petitioning and legal efforts won Kike and Zully's release earlier this year, but Alex was forced into "voluntary departure."

More recently, Riaz Talukder, a Muslim father of two in New York City, was able to win a temporary stay of deportation thanks to a broad campaign by activists and neighbors involving protests, media interviews with his sons and a petition signed by 8,000 people.

The fact that the Trump administration's Islamophobia did not stop thousands of local community members from voicing their support for Talukder gives hope that the same solidarity can be mobilized for Siham in Boston, where thousands protested at Logan International Airport and Copley Square earlier this year to oppose Trump's Muslim travel ban.

On Thursday, December 14, the Boston ISO is helping to organize a panel discussion featuring Siham's partner Aziz and lawyer Matt Cameron. Organizers also plan to read a statement from Siham, so her own voice can be heard.

"The direct involvement of Siham and Aziz is critical for building the kind of movement we need to free Siham and keep fighting against every deportation," says the ISO's Sullivan.

Matt Cameron also agrees with this approach. "We're trying, but there's only so much I can do in the courtroom, unfortunately," he told us by phone. "We really need to put pressure on the system through activism if we're going to win Siham's release."

The stakes for Siham are incredibly high, but experience shows that through mass action and mobilization, it's possible to win, which can then give more people fighting deportations the confidence to take their cases public and join the movement.

We must continue to fight. Siham is certainly worth it.

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