What You Leave Behind: Deportation Update

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Haiat Awad is 12 years old, but her determined, self-assured manner shows a maturity far beyond her years. Disciplining Belal, her five-year-old brother, and Fida, her six-year-old sister, who both have mild disabilities, hasn't been easy since the government took their mother away last month.

Haiat Awad: Go pick it up Belal. 'No, you're not my mom.' I'm like, 'Listen to me!' and he's like, 'No, you're not my mom!'

The kids' mom, Amina Silmi, is now in jail, leaving young Haiat and her siblings in the care of Silmi's sister. The fathers of the children are long gone. Silmi is charged with overstaying her visitor's visa. The possibility of leaving behind three American children makes her case heartbreaking, says Julia Shearson, director of the Cleveland Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Julia Shearson: To have no mother and no father, I think it is just the opposite of what we say about family values.

Silmi has indicated that, if deported, her children will remain in the U.S., where she feels they'll get better care for their disabilities. An immigration court denied her appeal, as did a federal appeals court. Silmi faces deportation at any time. For Shearson, a permanent family break-up would be tragic.

Julia Shearson: Nothing is more valuable to this family than to keep them together. At least keep whatever remnant is left, at least keep that intact.

Silmi's circumstance is troubling for other reasons, some observers say. Her case is compounded by the fact that she's one of more than 300,000 people labeled by the government as absconders: foreigners accused of ignoring court orders to leave the U.S. The label falls under the little known 2002 Alien Absconder Apprehension Initiative, which mandates swift deportation. Immigration advocates say the initiative leaves little room for common-sense corrections of bureaucratic errors or for humanitarian appeals. Silmi's former immigration attorney, Svetlana Schreiber:

Svetlana Schreiber: We continue to argue that Amina had continually co-operated with the government, had never shown that she had any intention to flee, that she was willing to abide and follow every single order from the government.

But Maria-Elena Garcia-Upson, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says the government's action is justified and routine.

Maria-Elena Garcia-Upson: We don't discriminate against country of origin and/or nationality. The fact of the matter is that if you are here in the United States violating immigration status, you will be removed from this country.

But Silmi's supporters insist she should be able to stay. They say Silmi was a victim of domestic violence and that she's eligible for a special visa available under the 1996 Violence Against Women Act. Silmi's case though is not unusual according to Lolita Buckner-Inniss, who teaches immigration law at Cleveland State University.

Lolita Buckner-Inniss: A number of women do find themselves in exactly Amina Silmi's situation - that is, to say - having U.S. citizen children and having no basis for remaining in this country. So objectively speaking, it's reflective more broadly of the problems that women face in immigration that are peculiar to women's cases. But, yes, I do think also that post 9-11 does play some part.

It plays a big part, says the director of the Cleveland Council on American-Islamic Relations, Julia Shearson. Silmi's situation has rallied American Muslims, she says, who see her treatment as a symbol of failures of Bush Administration immigration policies.

Julia Shearson: If Muslims speak on these issues, they can remind all Americans of what due process means, what the Bill of Rights means. So, you know, I hope they will be bolder in trying to speak up against what I feel are abuses... government abuses.

U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich, who's lobbied extensively on Silmi's behalf, agrees and says her case is about something even more fundamental.

Dennis Kucinich: She's got some immigration problems that should be resolved in favor of her kids. It's about the kids. What, we don't care about families anymore? We've got three children without, without a mother. A mother in a federal facility. Three American-born children and immigration is going to talk about their rules.

Kids: I miss my mom. F-I-D-A. No, F-M-B-A. No!

Silmi's sister, Jamila Jabr, says Silmi's children are happy during the day but it's at night that they're most sad about their mother. Jabr is caring for Silmi's kids, while juggling her duties as a child care worker, night student, and mother of seven - her own four and Silmi's three children.

This morning, a hearing on the legal issues and a request for an extension of time is scheduled in federal court. The ruling could determine Silmi's fate. In Cleveland, Tasha Cook, 90.3.

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