Venezuelan Muslim fights deportation
- Mother of 3 U.S. citizens fights Jan. 6 deportation
Donna J. Iacoboni and Robert L. Smith
Plain Dealer Reporters
Haiat Awad was the first in her family to become an American citizen,
when she was born here 11 years ago.
A brother and sister followed.
But now, their mother, a Venezuelan-born Muslim refugee, has two
heart-wrenching options - leave her children here, parentless, to
enjoy the privileges of being U.S. citizens or take them with her to
Venezuela, where she has no relatives, no job and no home.
Immigration officials have ordered Amina Silmi, 35, to leave the
country by Jan. 6. Her visitor's visa has expired.
U.S. immigration laws do not require officials to consider how a
deportation will effect American-born children, a leading Cleveland
immigration attorney said.
"The laws have no provisions for families, despite all of the talk
about family values," David Leopold said.
Silmi's children have been without a father figure since Dec. 1, when
her husband was deported for criminal activity. He was convicted in
1995 of trafficking in food stamps. Immigration officials revoked his
work permit, then sent him to Jordan.
In denying Silmi's attempts to remain here, Victoria Christian,
deputy chief counsel for the Cleveland office of the U.S. Citizenship
and Immigration Services wrote: "The demonstrated lack of financial
support of their children by placing them on welfare since birth plus
failure to file federal income tax returns in all but three of the
past 13 years demonstrates that this family does not contribute to
our society but only seeks benefits."
Silmi arrived on a visitor's visa and married a legal immigrant. When
that marriage fell apart, soon after Haiat was born, Silmi lost the
right to be here.
Silmi and the children are living on food stamps and Social Security
benefits for her son, who is mildly autistic. Her Lakewood landlord
has been lenient about the rent, she says.
"I love America. I'd give my blood for U.S.A.," she said
yesterday. "I got my high school GED two months ago. I want to be
somebody in life."
Attorney Svetlana Schreiber took Silmi's case two years ago and now
represents her for free.
Schreiber had hoped the government would consider Silmi's
circumstances: three young children - Haiat, Fida, 6, and Belal, 5 -
no living relatives in Venezuela and a history of being the victim of
domestic violence, she said.
The government can do just that, under what is called "deferred
action," a legal fudge factor, Leopold said.
"When it would be extremely cruel to deport someone, the government
can just let a file sit. Especially when there are other cases more
important to spend the money on," he said.
Some in Cleveland's Muslim community blame selective enforcement of
immigration laws; a Muslim focus has swept up innocents during the
war on terrorism, they say.
Julia Shearson, director of the Cleveland office of the Council on
American-Islamic Relations, contends that Silmi's scheduled
deportation is an example of extreme and callous enforcement of
federal immigration laws.
The government's "unrelenting aim to deport Amina Silmi will strip
three U.S. citizens, her children . . . of the right to grow up in
the United States with their mother, to stay with their friends in
school and to enjoy the benefits of being American-born citizens,"
Shearson said. "We're facing a harsh, cold wall here."
Immigration officials discovered Silmi's overstay in December 2000,
when she and her second husband passed through U.S. Customs during a
visit to Niagara Falls, she says.
This month, Silmi received a letter telling her to report to the
office of deportation in downtown Cleveland at 10 a.m. Jan. 6 with no
more than 70 pounds of luggage for a flight to Venezuela.
"In front of my children, I try to be strong," she said. "I can't
sleep. Always afraid. Even my oldest daughter, she sleeps with me,
too. She says, 'Mom, I don't want you to go away.' "
Silmi has an appeal pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals,
said Greg Gagne, spokesman for the Immigration and Customs
Enforcement office in Virginia. That panel does not discuss pending
Unless immigration services changes its position, Schreiber said,
Silmi could be placed in federal detention Jan. 6 and remain jailed
until her travel documents are completed.
Gagne said if Silmi is not considered a flight risk, she may remain
free pending the latest appeal.
"I pray a lot. My daughter prays a lot. We hope nothing happens [on
Jan. 6]," she said, refusing to even think about the choice she would
have to make.
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