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No festive cheer as deportation looms for Moroccan-American family

Trump's immigration crackdown is about more than race and religion – it is ripping up families across Midwest, say rights groups
Ohio and Michigan are among 10 US states home to more than two-thirds of nearly 3.7 million Americans with Arab roots (AFP)

NEW YORK, United States – It is not the Thanksgiving that Fatiha Elgharib had hoped for.

As millions of Americans chow down on turkey with loved ones on Thursday, Elgharib’s family faces the gloomy prospect of its matriarch being deported from Dayton, Ohio, back to Morocco within days, relatives told Middle East Eye.

Elgharib was previously allowed to remain stateside to care for her son, a US citizen with Down syndrome, but tough, anti-immigration rules under President Donald Trump will see her depart on a Casablanca-bound flight on Monday.

While Trump’s immigration crackdown is best known for targeting Latino “bad hombres” and citizens of several Muslim-majority nations, Arab- and Muslim-American families already living in the Midwest also have it rough, activists told MEE. 

“Donald Trump campaigned on deporting criminals. The biggest thing Fatiha has done was to stay past her visa stay date," her US-born sister-in-law, Denise Hamdi, told MEE. "She’s never even had a ticket for speeding, littering or jaywalking.” 

“There are very few criminals in these mass deportations we can see. And I don’t think most Americans realise that the folks who are being targeted are really the ones who try to cooperate with officials and don’t hide.”

Shackled and planned for deportation

Elgharib entered the US legally in 1996 with her two eldest children, joining her husband, Yusuf. She tried to legalise her status, including by registering via a federal database for Muslims that was created after the 9/11 attacks.

She ran afoul of immigration rules, but officials did not deport her on the grounds that one of her two US-born children, Sami, now 15, has Down syndrome and other health woes, for which she provides round-the-clock care.

That changed at her most recent annual check-in in October, when immigration enforcers slapped an electronic monitor around her ankle and told her to pack her bags for a 27 November flight back to Morocco.

“They’re taking away Sami’s caregiver and his mum at the same time,” said Hamdi.

They’re taking away Sami’s caregiver and his mum at the same time

- Denise Hamdi, sister-in-law to Fatiha Elgharib

“He’s going to feel like his mum has abandoned him. We will all have to deal with the consequences of this decision for the rest of his life, because Fatiha can’t even apply to come back for 10 years.”

She urged immigration chiefs to intervene with a “stay of deportation”.

'Alarmingly cruel'

Lynn Tramonte, director of America’s Voice Ohio, a rights group, told MEE that the Detroit office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which covers Ohio and Michigan, has “grown alarmingly cruel” in the Trump era.

This hurts many Arab-American families living with undocumented relatives, as Ohio and Michigan are among the 10 US states that are home to more than two-thirds of the almost 3.7 million Americans with Arab roots.

Rob Randhava, a lawyer at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a pressure group, warned of a deportation system that, in Elgharib’s case, could not differentiate between a crook and a caregiver.

“There is a long history in this country of policies targeting and scapegoating Arab and Muslim Americans, and the original policies implemented after 9/11 were what led to Fatiha getting caught in this mess in the first place,” Randhava told MEE.

There is a long history in this country of policies targeting and scapegoating Arab and Muslim Americans

- Rob Randhava, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

“As bad as those post-9/11 policies were, we did not see the kind of venom coming from President [George W] Bush as we’ve seen from this president, and that attitude really spreads to those who work underneath him and carry out these day-to-day decisions.”

ICE did not answer MEE’s request for comment.

ICE roundup

In June, Detroit ICE officers arrested and moved to deport 199 Iraqi immigrants as part of a nationwide crackdown on more than 1,400 undocumented Iraqis, including Chaldean Catholics, Kurds, Sunni Muslims and others who faced dangers back in their homeland.

Those detained had convictions for serious crimes, including rape and kidnapping, ICE said. Relatives, however, often described middle-aged men who had made mistakes in the past but had matured into family breadwinners.

Immigrant rights groups rail against Trump’s policies, but he was elected in 2016 on a platform of deporting undocumented migrants, including upset victories in Ohio and Michigan that swung the race in his favour.

For Judy Mark, president of Disability Voices United, a campaign group, Elgharib’s case is about more than race and religion – the crackdown is ripping up families across the Midwest in which parents give much-needed care to ailing kids.

“It’s going to end up costing taxpayers a lot more money,” Mark told MEE. “If you’re deporting parents, you’re going to cost this country more money for the services that the disabled person needs to not be institutionalised.”

Back in Englewood, the suburb of Dayton where Elgharib lives, the festive season is marred by the deportation proceedings and dimming hopes that Detroit ICE officers will change their mind and grant another one-year deferral.

As chances of a “miracle” reprieve have faded, Elgharib has grown despondent, said Hamdi. The mum-of-four was present during a phone interview with MEE, but was too “upset and nervous” to answer questions.

All she can think of, said Hamdi, is the pending trip to John Glenn Columbus International Airport, where immigration officers will remove her ankle tag before she says goodbye to Sami and the rest of her family, then boards the plane.

“They’re not killing people, however, they’re ripping people apart and it has similar consequences,” she said.

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