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University Should Speak Up For Detained Student Omar Helalat

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After dropped charges in a domestic abuse case during the Spring 2018 school semester, University at Albany student Omar Helalat had his immigration status revoked and was detained by United States Immigration authorities before being subsequently ordered to be deported.

After a romantic relationship turned sour, he was accused of domestic abuse by his partner at the time and arrested in March 2018. According to Times Union, when his father got to Albany County Jail, he was informed that the government had revoked his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status and that they would begin the deportation process.

After his ex sent a letter into the court in Helalat’s defense, they were not able to proceed with the case without victim cooperation. But due to an executive order in January 2017, he remains in federal detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Helalat moved from Jordan to the United States when he was just 4 years old. Although his family overstayed their travel visas, Helalat was granted temporary relief under DACA allowing him to remain in the U.S. and receive a formal education.

His family originally moved to the United States two months before 9/11 and, due to the widespread islamophobic sentiment in the general population at that time, his family told Times Union they were afraid to seek legal immigration status.

Helalat was by all measures an exemplary student. At the time of his arrest, he had a 3.8 GPA, made the President’s Honor List, and was a member of Tau Sigma Honors Society.

This past December, Helalat and his lawyer believed they would be able to reach an agreement to release him on bond. However, due to the recent government shutdown fueled by xenophobic rhetoric, he remains in federal detention.

In the face of such an event, the school’s silence is deafening; and furthermore, sadly not surprising.

UAlbany has a “first of its kind” College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cyber Security. Upon its opening, with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s legislative and financial blessing, the school is now training the next generation of ICE agents, while simultaneously claiming to be committed to diversity and creating a more just society.

Ironically, the mainstream narrative about Cuomo is that he is a bastion of immigrant rights, with some on the far-right even claiming that he supports the dissolution of ICE and borders as a whole. His actions and inactions regarding this case and his support for the School of Homeland Security fly in the face of these claims and further demonstrate his and establishment liberals at large’s dedication to upholding norms and “coming to a reasonable middle ground” over ideologically consistent legislation.

The egregiousness of this case has little to do with the nature of Helalat’s charges and all to do with legal precedent. Deporting a student for criminal charges prior to a verdict sets that precedent for all immigrants both documented and undocumented.

It is also important to note in brief the horrific nature of the detention centers Helalat and other immigrants are held in. These civil detention facilities are intended to be non-punitive, but the well-documented dehumanizing treatment of detainees by (often private) guards and the frequency of both deaths and suicide attempts proves this to be false. Furthermore, many of the people held in these centers have entered through legal ports of entry or, much like Helalat, were documented immigrants prior to their detainment.

It is time for the school administration to live up to its promises. To say no to xenophobia, and give more than lip service and cosmetic commitments to diversity and inclusion. To understand that it can not support immigrant students while simultaneously raising their future detainers. And most importantly, to make a public stand against the deportation of Omar Helalat.

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