US Congress committee, family and community call for release of Amer Adi Othman, who is on hunger strike
The detention of Palestinian businessman Amer Adi Othman by US immigration authorities has been called cruel, shameful, inhuman and harsh. But it is the lack of answers about his arrest that has baffled the family.
Last week, Othman, 57, was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Ohio, despite having previously agreed to leave the country. On Thursday, the agency announced that it has rejected demands, including from lawmakers, to suspend his deportation procedures.
“At this point nobody knows why,” his daughter Lina Adi told Middle East Eye.
Othman had been fighting deportation after being accused of involvement in a “sham” marriage more than 37 years ago.
The locally well known small business owner, who has been living in Youngstown, Ohio, for the past three decades, has been on hunger strike for eight days.
He married an American citizen after arriving in the US in 1979, which allowed him to successfully apply for legal residency. The marriage did not last and Othman remarried an Ohio woman with whom he has four children.
Treating an individual with no criminal record, who poses zero flight risk, like an animal flies in the face of the American values.
- Congressman Tim Ryan
His immigration status was brought into question because authorities suspected that his first marriage was a “sham”. His first wife had signed an affidavit backing the authorities’ accusation, but later submitted another document stating that the marriage was legitimate.
Adi said her dad has always been a documented immigrant.
“He wanted us to grow up here and have the American dream and live in this country,” Lina Adi said, adding that her father appealed deportation when his children were younger.
Still, late last year Othman accepted that he had exhausted all legal options and was prepared to leave the US voluntarily earlier this month.
A few days before his planned departure, Othman received a call from ICE telling him to stay in the country and report to the agency’s office on 16 January, his daughter said.
Activists demonstrate against deportations in New York, 11 January (Reuters)
Despite being accompanied by a congressman, the Palestinian businessman was detained at what was supposed to be a routine hearing with ICE and has remained in the agency’s custody since.
Congressman Tim Ryan, a Democrat who represents Adi’s district in Ohio, was livid at ICE’s treatment of his constituent.
Ryan described Othman’s arrest as a “shameful failure of justice”.
“Treating an individual with no criminal record, who poses zero flight risk, like an animal flies in the face of the American values Immigration and Customs Enforcement is supposedly defending,” he said in a statement on 16 January. “The Trump administration didn’t even give Amer an opportunity to say goodbye to his wife and four daughters.”
Ryan led efforts to pass a directive from the Congress Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security calling for a report from ICE on Othman’s case whilst lawmakers consider a private bill to grant the Palestinian businessman permanent residency.
Congressional requests for such reports normally lead to releasing immigrants and halting their deportation, Ryan said in a later statement.
“I would expect the Trump administration to honour the will of the subcommittee,” he said. But ICE had other ideas and decided to keep Othman in detention.
Lina Adi said the immigration authorities’ treatment of her father is incomprehensible.
“Everybody just wants to know why,” she told MEE of her father’s detention. “What in the world happened from the 7th (of January) of him voluntarily leaving, to the 16th when they detained him. Until this day right now, nobody knows the reason why he’s being detained.”
On Thursday, ICE confirmed that it is denying requests to halt Othman's deportation.
"After conducting a comprehensive review of Mr. Othman’s case, including careful consideration of the Chair of the Judiciary Committee’s request for an investigative report, ICE has chosen not to grant a stay of removal in his case," ICE spokesperson Khaalid Wallas said in an emailed statement without elaborating on the reasons.
Ahmad Abuznaid, director of the National Network of Arab American Communities (NAAC), said ICE has aligned itself with the will of the White House.
“ICE has disregarded the humanity of countless individuals across this country in order to detain and deport them,” Abuznaid told MEE. “I find this (Othman) case as them continuing down that pathway.”
Although more than 2.5 million people were deported under former President Barack Obama, critics say ICE has become more forceful in its crackdown on immigrants since Donald Trump took office a year ago.
As a candidate, Trump made immigration a cornerstone of his campaign, vowing to deport all undocumented immigrants. He also called unauthorised Mexicans immigrants “rapists” in the 2015 speech announcing his presidential bid.
Abuznaid said Othman’s Palestinian heritage was “definitely” a factor in his ordeal.
Adi, however, would not speculate about possible political motives behind her father’s detention.
“Everybody is politically involved one way or another, and I know that being Palestinian - it’s much harder,” she said. “Palestinian or not, this is inhumane - putting someone in jail who is on hunger strike… Are they trying to kill this man?”
Othman, who owns a convenience store in downtown Youngstown, has been credited with revitalising central neighbourhoods in the city through his investments. He has been portrayed by his family and supporters as a beloved leader in the midwestern town of 64,000 people.
Youngstown Mayor Jamael Brown has called him a "pioneer for the downtown renaissance".
Local residents have organised protests against his detention; the editorial board of the Cleveland-based Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper, penned an article calling his detention “seemingly arbitrary and harsh”; a state Republican official has described ICE’s behaviour against Othman as “cruel” and “wrong”.
Adi expressed gratitude for the support from the local community and vowed that the family will continue to fight for Othman.
“He’s raised four strong women, and we’re here to be his voice,” she told MEE. “We won’t let this go down without a fight.”