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American Muslim

NY News Day - December 13, 2003

A Legal Catch-22 For Immigrants

By Mae M. Cheng

 When the Department of Homeland Security announced earlier this month that it would end a program that required male visitors from 25 countries to register, the news came too late for some families.

Nearly 14,000 immigrants now face deportation because of their illegal status in the United States.

Homeland Security officials say nothing can be done for those who are here illegally and come to the government's attention through the registration program. "The fact that they complied with one law does not absolve them of complying with another," said Bill Strassberger, a Homeland Security spokesman.

Angry immigrant groups argue that many who face deportation were in the process of legalizing their status when they went to register. Some also say they have compelling reasons to stay.

For two families who spoke to Newsday, living in the United States will make the difference between compassionate medical care and a life of hardship for their sick children, they say. Another young immigrant man claims a bittersweet victory. His deportation has been halted on humanitarian grounds but he faces cancer and a grim prognosis.

Here are their stories:

The Al-Habach Family: Here for the children. Eight-year-old Isra Al-Habach wanders around a children's playroom at the downtown Brooklyn offices of the Arab-American Family Support Center, reaching her hand out to strangers but quickly retreating back to her father's safe embrace.

Isra can't talk and is partially blind and deaf. She can't dress herself and she's not toilet-trained.

Despite her developmental problems, Isra has made tremendous strides in the last three years since she and her family moved from Syria to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Isra now sleeps through the night, her family says. Her attempts to befriend strangers are signs of how far she's come from the little girl who shied away from people.

Isra's parents attribute her improvements to the medical treatments and physical therapy she's received in the United States. Her brother, Mohamad, 4, is also developmentally disabled and cannot walk but, through treatments in the United States, he too has shown improvement.

Both children attend special classes through the city's public schools.

"I left my home, my country, my business because of my kids," their father, Mohamad Mamoun Al-Habach, 34, said in Arabic through an interpreter. "The treatment they need and deserve is in the United States and they don't have this back home."

But returning home is the prospect the family is facing.

Al-Habach went to register himself with immigration officials in January, as required by the federal program. After 15 hours of waiting, Al-Habach was released with papers telling him that he is facing deportation.

He now returns to immigration court about every three months in his attempt to fight deportation. His next court appearance is later this month.

The ending of the registration program "hasn't reversed anything for them," said Johanna Habib, the family's attorney at the support center. "The damage is done."

The Al-Habach family — consisting of the elder Mohamad, his wife Safa Kazem, their daughter, Isra, and her two brothers, Mohamad and Basel, 9, — came to the United States on tourist visas. They attempted to extend their visas but did not successfully complete the process, leaving them without legal status in the United States.

"If I return to my home country, I'll feel like I have done nothing for them," Al-Habach said of his children. "People in this country look at people with disabilities in a good way, with intentions to help. Back home, people look at disabled people not so nicely."

The family, which left behind a granite business in Syria, relies on the generosity of relatives to help support them. Their energies are focused on getting the best medical treatments for the two youngest children.

"We are a simple family," Kazem said. "We just want treatment for our kids. ... I cannot do it alone. The kids are very attached to him."

If the worst should happen and he is deported, Al-Habach said he would have to consider moving his family to another country so his children can continue to get proper medical care.

Habib said it is "very, very rare" for the government to halt deportation on humanitarian grounds.

Still, Al-Habach is hopeful.

"We know the government here has mercy," he said.

The Yahya Family: 'I did the right thing.' Nofrizal Yahya, 41, works two jobs to support his family.

He delivers newspapers and works at a nail supply company because his wife needs to stay at home and care for their three daughters, the youngest of whom, Cynthia, 3, has Down syndrome.

Cynthia already has had two surgeries — one for heart and lung problems, the other for her ears and eyes — and legal representatives say she continues to be at risk of developing leukemia and paralysis. Yet the family's biggest fear right now is that Yahya will be deported to Indonesia.

"I would like to stay here [in the United States] because I worry about Cynthia's future," said Yahya, who lives in Crown Heights with his family. "She will need more treatments."

Yahya went to register himself with immigration officials in April, after hearing about the program from a friend and through a news broadcast. He said he went because he wanted to follow the law and he didn't want to be labeled a terrorist.

At the immigration offices, he was body-searched and released at the end of the day with a notice that he was to appear in immigration court for his deportation hearing.

His next court date is in April but he is asking the government to drop its deportation case against him.

"I feel like I was a victim of my own good will," Yahya said in Indonesian through an interpreter. "I did the right thing and I was victimized."

Yahya explained that the family, who came to the United States eight years ago, is from a small village on Sumatra island where good medical care is scarce and understanding of crippling diseases non-existent.

Yahya said he knows of a family with a son who has Down syndrome living in their village. Not only is the child lacking proper medical treatment but he is ostracized by the residents, Yahya said.

"If I had to go home without my family, I don't know who would take care of the family," Yahya said. "I can't even think of it right now."

Ammar Alnahham: A bittersweet victory

Ammar Alnahham came to the United States from Bahrain in March 2001 to visit his cousin living in Harlem. He never imagined the visit would be his last.

Two months after arriving in the United States, Alnahham, now 22, fell ill and was taken to the hospital. There, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and stomach cancer. He received chemotherapy treatments and was feeling better. But he was told a few months later that the cancer had spread to his colon.

At around the same time, Alnahham heard about the registration program and decided to comply. He said he had previously applied to extend his tourist visa but never heard back from immigration officials, so he was an undocumented immigrant at the time he went to register.

When he got to the immigration offices at 26 Federal Plaza in January, Alnahham was interrogated, held overnight and released a day later with an appointment to see an immigration judge about being deported.

"I was scared," Alnahham said. "I have a lot of medical problems. I didn't want to go back."

Despite his weakened state, Alnahham said that at least from his cousin's Harlem home he could walk to the hospital for his treatments.

Among those facing deportation, Alnahham turned out to be one of the more fortunate.

Earlier this year, the government agreed to close his deportation case on humanitarian grounds. His attorney, Kim Thuy Seelinger of the Lutheran Family and Community Services office in Manhattan, now is seeking an indefinite halt to deportation if immigration officials ever come across him again. His status, however, remains precarious because he is still undocumented. If she is successful, however, Alnahham may even be eligible to receive authorization to work if he's able.

Despite Alnahham's illness, he still makes every attempt to remain cheerful and tries to live his life as normally as possible.

Alnahham's prognosis for recovery from his illness is poor, according to Seelinger. It's even become difficult for him to walk a few city streets. The months he spent worrying about being deported didn't help his health.

"He would never tell me how worried he was," Seelinger said. "But he was really anxious. He definitely says he's been sleeping a lot better."