The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency deported an undocumented New Yorker who had lived in the U.S. for two decades and repeatedly checked in with the government, sending him back to his native Yemen where he fears for his life.
Last Friday, Hazaea Alomaisi, a 42-year-old Yemeni national who goes by Anwar, went to a scheduled meeting with immigration officials to review his case. For 22 years, Alomaisi had diligently reported for these check-ins, which gave him temporary reprieve from deportation because he wasn’t a priority for removal. He became active in the local Yemeni community over those years, volunteering with the fire department and photographing weddings.
But this time when he went to check in with ICE, officials told him he could not go home. Instead, he was to be deported.
ICE sent Alomaisi to the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, New Jersey, where he stayed for a few days. He was put on a plane from John F. Kennedy Airport to Yemen on Tuesday ― before he got a chance to see his attorney, appeal the decision or say goodbye to his family.
“We were just shocked,” his uncle Adnan Alomaisi told HuffPost. Adnan was the first person Alomaisi called when he was detained. “If we knew, we would have done something faster.”
By the time Alomaisi’s lawyer, Kai De Graaf, went to visit him on Tuesday morning, immigration officials said it was too late. Alomaisi was already on the plane back to Yemen. He didn’t have the opportunity to appeal and he was deported even though he feared for his life in his native country, De Graaf said.
Alomaisi “failed to leave the country in accordance with his visa requirements” and was ordered removed by a federal immigration judge in 2005, an ICE spokesperson told HuffPost. The agency confirmed that he filed for an appeal in 2006, but said it was dismissed.
Alomaisi was released on an order of supervision in July 2011. However, that order was revoked on Jan. 21, leading to his removal one week later, ICE said.
The Yemeni Embassy in the U.S. did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on Alomaisi’s removal.
The deportation is emblematic of immigration policy under President Donald Trump, who ended prosecutorial discretion policies that allowed many undocumented residents to avoid deportation even if they were legally eligible for it. Trump also dramatically decreased the number of Yemeni refugees admitted into the U.S. and barred some people from Yemen from even visiting.
Now, Alomaisi’s family said, he could face danger for his political activism while in the U.S. and because of the ongoing violence in Yemen. The Mideast nation has endured years of political and civil unrest since 2011. Trapped in a proxy war between the Iranian-back Houthi rebels and the Saudi-supported current government, civilians face daily airstrikes, market bombs and kidnapping threats. Yemen’s medical infrastructure continues to crumble. Between the lack of medical supplies and a famine that has impacted millions inside the country, Yemenis are suffering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Alomaisi had considered himself lucky to start over when he came to the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1998 and decided to stay. New York was the perfect place for him to settle, with over 13,000 New York-born Yemenis in the state. He felt right at home and sought to gain legal status through several avenues, all to no avail.
After studying photography at Westchester Community College, Alomaisi used his talents to give back to the people who took him in. He photographed weddings, protests and galas for the Yemeni and larger Arab community, often for free. He was on the frontlines of the 2017 Yemeni bodega strike against Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration ban.
With a particular passion for wildlife, Alomaisi often showcased photos of eagles, owls and other birds on his social media pages. In December 2016, he even made news for rescuing a famished owl he found during one of his photoshoots. A volunteer with his local fire department and a Red Cross member, Alomaisi was always looking for ways to give back.
“It’s a big loss for the community. Everyone I talked to is completely shocked,” said Ibrahim Qatabi, a senior legal worker at the Center for Constitutional Rights who has known Alomaisi for nearly a decade and has been in contact with him since his removal.
“This was a peaceful individual who had come to the U.S. to find a better life, served uniquely, contributed his time to the betterment of everyone around him,” said Qatabi.
Alomaisi’s family said that besides regularly checking in with immigration officials, he did not have any criminal record and paid his taxes.
But with Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, and the increase in deportations, many undocumented Yemenis feared they were perfect targets for the new administration.
Alomaisi told people he wasn’t worried and attempted to reassure his community that they would be protected. After all, he thought there was no way the U.S. would send them to a country taken over by bombs and famine amid a conflict that the American government itself has a role in. But he was wrong.
“Instead of trying to find ways to make sure we don’t send people to harm’s way, they did the exact opposite,” said Qatabi. “The so-called land of the free, which is now becoming the land of deportation.”