A Morro Bay Egyptian man fears separation from his U.S.-born children
BY NATALIE CONNELLY
Ahmed Fahmy and Joleen Fanton-Fahmy considered the risk of telling their story, but decided people needed to know the challenges immigrants face in the post-9/11 United States. This, they said, outweighed the wish to protect Ahmeds identity.
Ahmed Fahmy and his wife Joleen Fanton-Fahmy of Morro Bay laugh easy when they sit with their son Josef, 8, and daughter Gabriella, 4, in their favorite giant eucalyptus tree in lower Morro Bay Harbor. They call it the family tree, and they nestle together in its branches. The parents cherish these moments with their children because they know the family may not be whole for much longer.
The moments spent with his children are priceless to Fahmy, a 32-year-old Egyptian immigrant, who might be taken from his family later this month by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).
"Its scary," Fahmy said. "If they suspect you of anything, you can be put in jail for life. Youve got no rights."
Egyptian immigrants were recently required to register with the BCIS. Right now only Middle Eastern and North African countries are on the registration list. Eventually all immigrants will be required to register.
BCIS is requiring registration so the feds can run fingerprints against known criminals, determine if foreigners are overstaying their visit, and check up on people to make sure theyre doing what they claim to do.
Immigrants who have a green card or citizenship dont have to register.
Horror stories have been chronicled in the L.A. Times about the plight of hundreds of Middle Easterners and North Africans who were incarcerated when they arrived to register with the BCIS. They were rounded up into police vans and shipped all over the stateand even out of stateaway from their families, because the L.A. County Jail ran out of space.
The BCIS has stopped doing the massive round-ups, but they continue to detain suspicious immigrants, according to Francisco Arcaute, public information officer for BCIS in L.A.
Some say the roundups and indefinite detentions are reminiscent of Japanese internment camps during World War II. Other immigrants were less fortunate and deported.
So far, 110,534 people have been registered, 2,034 have been detained in county jails, and 77 of the detained are related to criminal convictions. BCIS wouldnt release the number of immigrants who had been deported.
Fahmy is not the most likely person to be detained, according to Arcaute. He said immigrants whose visa has expired while their citizenship request is being processed are less likely to be detained. And if they are one of the 2,034 who have been detained, they will have a chance to plea their case before a judge by bringing in friends and family to testify.
For now, Fahmys afraid to register because it might be the last time he races Josef to the family tree or wraps Gabriella in his sweater when shes cold. His fear is based on the L.A. detentions and on his own experience in SLO County jail.
Fahmy was arrested for driving under the influence in August 2002, but all tests returned negative, so police gave him a speeding ticket even though he wasnt speeding, according to Fahmy. When he was put in jail, he didnt have any identification and was told hed be deported in 48 hours if he couldnt provide his alien number.
"I couldnt sleep," Fahmy said. "I kept having this vision of me reaching out to touch my kids hands. I thought I wasnt going to get to see my kids."
The jail was packed with immigrants who were all being told the same thing: that theyd be deported in 24 to 48 hours, Fahmy said. At one point the border patrol officer turned to him and said, "I dont care if youre married to God," when Fahmy was explaining that hes married to a U.S. citizen.
Meanwhile, Fahmys wife was at home scrambling to find all the relevant information she could to secure her husbands release. But she was also unsure if her records would spare him from deportation.
"I thought, This is what it all comes down to?" Joleen said. "Ive been married to this man for eight years, hes the father of my children, and now theyre just going to take him away without a thought? It seemed so wrong."
A large part of Fahmys problem is that he still doesnt have his citizenship. The BCIS seems to have confused his file with somebody elses, which is extremely rare according to SLO immigration lawyer Anthony Lucero.
But other administrative mess-ups arent so rare. For example, the BCIS has a backlog of citizenship applications to process, so all the Middle Eastern and African people waiting for their papers to be processed who have to register by April 25 face some likelihood of detention until their file is located.
Fahmy and Fanton-Fahmy have been married eight years, had two children, sent the BCIS their tax information and change of address every time theyve moved, and yet Fahmy is unable to locate his file through the BCIS. Fahmy knows the file exists because the border patrol officer found it to verify his legal status while he was being held in SLO County Jail. But nobody, including an attorney and Congresswoman Lois Capps, has been able to access Fahmys file. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that Fahmys lawyer filed is sitting in a pile of countless other FOIAs.
The last time Fahmy applied for his work visa three years ago, he never received it in the mail. Lois Capps office even intervened and called the BCIS to expedite the visa process, but to no avail. Fahmy worked on Capps voucher for a year, but is still waiting for his work visa.
Fahmy hasnt been able to work legally for more than a year now. Hes had to sell family inheritance in Egypt to subsidize under-the-table money he makes gardening or playing concerts.
He isnt able to support his family on what he brings in. So while his wife is managing two coffee shops for 2 Dogs Coffee Co. & Internet Cafe, he does what he can to help out by watching Gabriella and Josef.
A year later, when he still hadnt received his work visa, Fahmys employer got nervous and gave him a final two weeks to show up with a permit. The BCIS didnt deliver the visa, and Fahmy and his wife didnt ask Capps to intervene again, because the World Trade Center bombings had occurred and they worried that if they drew attention to their case, as an Egyptian, Fahmy would risk deportation.
"Its killing me," Fahmy said. "I cant work, invest, get medical coverage. Im bankrupt without a bank. But I never complain to my kids. I feed them, clothe them, keep them dignified."
Fahmys lawyer called Capps this month to see if her office could help push through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request he filed with the BCIS to get a copy of Fahmys record. Capps office couldnt help because there was such a backlog of FOIA requests at BCIS.
Without a work visa or other records from his file Fahmy has no valid identification, which means he cant find work or provide police with any form of ID. Or when he goes to L.A. for registration at the end of April, hes got no proof of his legal statusstacking all the cards against him, increasing his chances of being detained, or worse, deported.
"Im very frustrated," Fahmy said. "I feel like Im being treated like an inferior person, like my value as a human being doesnt count at all."
Every month for years hed call BCIS to figure out where his work visa was. Phone operators always told him it was in the pipelines, but all he received in the mail was a letter denying him of a refund, which he never requested.
Three months ago, Fahmy hired a lawyer to help him retrieve his file and finally get citizenship. Hes glad he did, because within a month Egypt was put on the mandatory registration list.
But just last week, his lawyer was given the same response Fahmys received for years from the BCIS"your files in processing"only to learn later through Capps office that the BCIS hasnt released the file because of the file-request overload. The runaround his lawyer and Capps office is receiving only solidifies Fahmys view that immigrations internal bureaucracy is a joke.
Although Fahmys situation is extreme, other immigrants are also caught in a citizenship limbo. Theyre still waiting for visas and citizenships to be processed when they line up for registration in L.A. or San Francisco, fearing a police detention roundup. Some immigrants have decided not to register.
Lucero doesnt suggest this option to any of his clients because the consequences are so severe. If they get caught, it is almost certain theyll be detained and end up in deportation court.
"I think [the USA PATRIOT laws and policies] are the biggest farce to destroy our rights, or control our rights," Fanton-Fahmy said. "I understand it might apply to a minute population, but you cant just take people away from their families. And now, because the INS has slacked for so many years and everyones scared, they want to contain everyone, and those wholl lose out most will be our children."
Lucero agrees that forced registration seems unconstitutional.
"It seems that [registration] is a tremendous invasion of privacy," Lucero said. "The people required to register could make a strong case against it."
Some groups have already sued. The Center for Constitutional Rights has sued federal officials, including U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and prison staff in the New York-New Jersey area, on behalf of seven named immigrants and an untold number of others.
Back at the family tree, Fahmy and Fanton-Fahmy help each other lift Gabriella onto a branch. The citizenship fiasco has been a great challenge in their relationship.
"You could say this has been a strain on our marriage," Fanton-Fahmy said. "But I would never divorce him if that meant he wouldnt be able to see his children. Thats just cruel."
The parents have decided not to tell their children Daddy could be taken away from them. But they think their 8-year-old is catching on because there is so much tension in the family.
In the family tree, Josef sits in the highest branch, proclaiming himself head of the family, reciting city populations: "San Luis Obispo: 44,613, Morro Bay: 10,155." Hes already distinguished himself in school with high marks, sold a graphic art piece from a web site he built, and wakes up in the morning excited about the dream he had where all sidewalks and roofs were made out of solar panels so the world was more eco-friendly.
The night before, Josef was watching the news when he turned to Fanton-Fahmy, asking, "Mommy, does the United States hate Egyptians?" She told him that they dont hate Egyptians, but they fear them because one of the terrorists flying the plane was an Egyptian.
"How do you explain something like that to children?" Fanton-Fahmy said. "Im not trying to shelter my children from life, and I dont want to spring this on them last minute, but its so complicated. They saw the planes crash into the Twin Towers; but they know Daddy didnt do it, so why hes going to be the one taken away is going to be hard to explain."
Time is closing in on the Fahmy family. Fahmy will register at the L.A. BCIS at the beginning of April, although he has until the April 25 deadline. The day he leaves, hell give his lawyer a call to check in, and Fanton-Fahmy and three friends will accompany him to L.A. as witnesses.
The scary thing wouldnt be deportation, according to Lucero. The BCIS could imprison an immigrant for the next five years if he wasnt a priority.
The family is facing questions like, "Should Daddy leave? Should he stay? Should he move to a country closer to the U.S., like Canada?"
Even if Fahmy was detained and immediately shipped back to Egypt, it would be better than sitting indefinitely in jail. But neither he nor Fanton-Fahmy would want to fly their children to Egypt to visit Daddy anytime soon because of war and tension in the region.
The best they are hoping for is that Fahmy, with the help of a lawyer and Capps office, will get his immigration file from BCIS before he must drive to L.A. to register. They hope BCIS will then review his file and assess hes not a threat to the nation. If all runs smoothly, Fahmy and friends will return to Morro Bay and resume pursuit of a long-overdue work visa and legal citizenship.
Until the deadline, the Fahmy family is trying to act like a normal family, struggling to provide a good education and solid foundation for their children. Fanton-Fahmy, managing two coffee shops to make ends meet, and Ahmed watching Josef and Gabriella.
"I hope the U.S. goes back to what it wasto live the American dream, to live and prosper and raise my family," Fahmy said. "I do believe that can happen." Æ
Staff writer Natalie Connelly can be reached at email@example.com.