Photo: Steve Ahlquist
On November 21, Immigration and Customs Enforcement attempted to deport single mother and outspoken social justice activist Siham Byah. A statement posted to her Facebook page while she was held in Bristol County Corrections facility read:
They planned to take her to New York airport and ship her to Morocco. Siham stated that she refused to go, and the ICE officer did not force her as they normally do. She was then taken back to Bristol jail county [sic]. Siham has been through hell, no sleep and the last meal she had was in Sunday morning. This is very sad and upsetting. Please keep up your support to free her and reunite her with Naseem. In solidarity we stand with Siham. #FreeSiham
Two weeks earlier, Siham Byah arrived with her lawyer, Matt Cameron to ICE offices in Burlington, MA, for what she was told would be a routine check-in. She was placed under “unjust, unwarranted and uncalled for ambush-style arrest,” according to her statement- published today on Facebook. Her eight-year-old son, Naseem was in school when she was detained “with no warning whatsoever,” according to Cameron.
In an alarming and fraught statement written by Siham, she speaks of “cruel and unusual emotional blackmail”:
I had entered a hunger strike immediately after my arrest in protest, demanding a valid reason for it, however even that basic right was coerced and extorted from me. This institution told me that if I continue to cry over what had happened to my son, that I would be strapped in a bed in the psych ward and stripped of my clothes. “Cry in the shower,” they suggested. Furthermore, I was taken promptly to a segregated solitary cell and denied access to meds, heat, books, writing materials, access to my attorney/family/[or Department of Children and Families] unless I ended my hunger strike. When they finally allowed me a call to my attorney, they made it clear I was not to contact DCF or my family, in direct contradiction with their own regulations.
Within hours of Siham’s detention, friends of Siham’s launched a petition and fundraiser-, while dozens of supporters frantically called the offices of Massachusetts senators and representatives. “They fucking snatched Siham,” wrote longtime friend Nicole Sullivan on Facebook.
The following day, as Byah went on hunger strike, local chapters of If Not Now, a Jewish Palestine Solidarity group, and Cosecha, a grassroots immigrants rights organization, mobilized a hundred community members, faith leaders, friends and family to rally outside the JFK Federal Building in Boston to demand her immediate release.
Under slogans of “free Siham” and “keep families together,” demonstrators held candles and heard speeches from Siham’s friends and family urging supporters to contact local government officials and spread her story. Siham is widely loved in local activist communities for her contributions to Occupy Boston and other social justice causes.
“Here’s the thing,” journalist Alex Press wrote on Twitter, “Siham fed me when I was too poor to feed myself. She’s a great person & mom, and she’s being taken from her son #FreeSiham.”
“Siham is the type of person that if there was anyone in need, whether she knew you or not she would be there for you. She would open her door to you if you had no place to go,” said Siham’s friend Malika MacDonald, who met her at the local mosque and spoke at the rally.
I have vivid memories myself of Siham during Occupy Boston, always vibrant, always ready to help, ready to motivate people for the next action, keeping spirits high with unwavering principles and dedication.
Siham worked as a real estate agent and lived with her young son in Nahant, an island northeast of Boston in Massachusetts Bay. She had received an unusual call from her case officer in October letting her know her appointment with ICE, originally in December, had been moved up by several weeks. She had been checking in to the ICE New England Field Office regularly, for nearly four years, and receiving stays of removal.
But during this visit, without warning, she was placed in custody and denied the opportunity to leave voluntarily under the customary “30/30,” thirty days to return to the field office with a ticket to depart the country within thirty days.
When lawyer Matt Cameron demanded to know from ICE why no one in New England had the authority to reconsider, the immigration case officer informed Cameron that the order to detain Siham came directly from Washington DC, at ICE’s national headquarters. Cameron said ICE’s official response as to the reasons for her detention “essentially said because we’re ready to deport you.”
“I’ve never heard of this,” said Cameron, who specializes in immigration and has extensive experience in the field: “No one had. Any of it.”
“Just imagine the impact on her son, her eight-year-old son, coming home from school and learning that his mother is gone,” said Siham’s friend, Malika. “They’ve ripped this family apart. He is her only child. She is a single parent. He doesn’t have his father. The community itself is really at a loss. They’re fearful to speak out. They’re fearful to come out, because they don’t know who’s going to be next.”
At the time of this article, Siham’s son Naseem was still placed by DCF with an unknown family, despite his mother having no abuse or neglect claim against her.
“She identified the family that she wants her son to stay with temporarily and she wants to give them temporary custody. It should be a no brainer. All that has to be done is that she signs a motion and gives temporary custody to this family and DCF places him there. There’s no reason to have him in the system at this time when they have a viable family that is willing and able to take custody of him — have their own home, have the means to take care of him…It really makes me frustrated with what are their intentions.”
“My son’s life has turned upside down,” wrote Siham in her statement published November 21.
ICE told Cameron that they had at least six Moroccans identified and she was the only one with a passport on file. Siham immigrated to the US from Morocco in 1999. “National origins are definitely a factor as well,” Cameron said.
“The community right now, especially the North African Moroccan community, is really in fear. We’ve had word that ICE is making the rounds. They’ve been doing sweeps and have detained at least one other person, Moroccan, which has been verified,” Malika said in an interview the night of the demonstration in support of Siham.
Siham is being held at the Bristol County House of Correction, where she remains on hunger strike. “It’s a terrible place, more than most,” said Cameron. According to Nizar Byah, Siham’s brother, Siham was placed in solitary confinement for refusing to eat, was only allowed to call her lawyer if she broke her fast, and vomited blood upon being given omeprazole, a drug used to treat stomach ulcers.
Hodgson has been called “MA’s own Joe Arpaio” for his blatant racism and mistreatment of prisoners, such as replacing in-person family visits with video conferences, and charging prisoners to use the service. Hodgson enthusiastically aids ICE in the round-up and detention of young Central American immigrants without criminal records in what Kade Crockford, of the Massachusetts ACLU, calls a school-to-deportation pipeline.
Siham Byah’s detention is one in an uptick of ICE activity across the country since Trump took office and fits a disturbing pattern. Trump promised to deport three million “criminal aliens” if he got elected. While the number of Trump’s deportations has barely kept pace with former President Barak Obama’s deportations in 2016, arrests have skyrocketed 43 percent. Only few non-citizens and undocumented people in the U.S. have criminal records, however. Thus, says Cameron, “for millions of unsuspecting people, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ will be quietly amended to ‘innocent until proven foreign.’”
“It’s a terrible way to have to live, not knowing if you’re going to get that knock on your door. But for myself, as an American Muslim woman, you know, to see my friends disappear –it’s devastating. I’m angry that I live in a country that currently has no regard for families or for the wellbeing of an individual,” said Siham’s friend Malika.
Siham’s situation is a case in point. ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer has repeatedly vilified Siham as “a criminal” with “convictions,” yet her Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) file reveals that she has only a single motor vehicle related conviction. Although former President Barak Obama deported an estimated 2.5 million immigrants, more than any other president, “even this time last year Siham’s situation would have been absolutely unthinkable,” Cameron stated, adding:
“We still have no explanation from ICE as to why the national office in Washington, D.C. has chosen to selectively enforce the law against her the way that it has. I have had dozens of clients in her exact legal position, and they have all been given the opportunity to voluntarily depart on their own ticket–especially when there are young children involved. The only conclusion that I can reach is that Siham has been specifically targeted for her outspoken political opinions. From John Adams to Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon and beyond, the U.S. government has never hesitated to use the deportation system to threaten and silence unpopular political views. The Trump administration is only continuing this sorry legacy.”
The U.S. government has always used immigration law and the machinery of deportation to repress political dissent. Mounting evidence shows that Trump’s administration has ramped up unconstitutional, politically targeted ICE detentions.
In April, Daniela Vargas, after living in the U.S. for a decade and a half (since she was seven years old), was taken by ICE following a press conference for her father and brother, who had also been detained by ICE. The following month, a federal deportation officer asked Rutgers student and outspoken activist Carimer Andujar whether she “will continue fighting for the rights of undocumented people.” Andujar received several summons despite her protected status through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In March, undercover ICE agents arrested prominent dairy worker labor organizers and activists with Vermont-based Migrant Justice Zully Palacios, Enrique “Kike” Balcazar, and Cesar Alex Carrillo. While Zully and Kike were freed, Alex was deported in May.
While Massachusetts is reputedly progressive, even a “sanctuary” in some cities, Cameron and his colleagues have noticed an increase in what are called “courthouse stops.” ICE picks people up at courthouses, usually immediately after arraignment. “They get you after you’ve gone to your first court appearance. You go in front of an immigration judge for federal immigration bond, and then the immigration judge uses the police report against you as if it were fact, all before you’ve had a chance to put your case to a criminal court.”
This could not have been possible without the Obama administration making a program to run all criminal suspects’ fingerprints through an immigration database. Unlike the controversial section 287(g) of the US Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows states to deputize local police to enforce federal immigration law, this program requires no opt-in. Thanks to Obama, there’s no opt-out either.
Among immigration lawyers in the state, it is widely held that ICE is retaliating after the landmark decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the Lunn v. Commonwealth case, which ruled that local law enforcement officials do not have the authority to detain a person solely based on ICE detainers. Even progressive legislation such as as the Safe Communities Act would have little to no impact on ICE’s infiltration; “and not for lack of trying,” says Cameron, “it’s just that we have no real power as states to stop the jackboots.”
“Right now the main targets that we’re seeing again and again are working parents with no serious criminal records and no issues with anybody, who’ve never had any problems with ICE or with the public. Those are the easiest people for this administration to deport and that’s who they’re coming for,” Cameron told AJ+.
As an undocumented Muslim working mother and outspoken social justice activist, Siham has had a target on her back for persecution not only at the hands of the United States government, but also by the Moroccan government.
In a video recorded in 2012 at Occupy Boston, posted to Twitter by Cameron, Siham says, “I had been the black sheep in Morocco for a very long time, speaking out against the dictatorships and always being outraged about the fact that the United States keeps showing them support, not caring about what they put their people through.” In speaking about her central role in establishing solidarity actions in the U.S. with the Arab Spring, Siham recounts how she was sent official papers by the Moroccan secret service ordering her to go back to Morocco to stand court-martial for treason. According to Siham, Moroccan agents slashed her tires three times, which she documented with the Boston Police. Siham also received death threats such as “I will pop one in your head—I know where you live.” Siham says, “I was threatened with rape. I was threatened that they would rape my two-year-old while I was watching.”
The Kingdom of Morocco has a deplorable human rights record, ranking 130 out of 180 countries on freedom of the press by Reporters Without Borders in 2015. For the past year, the monarchical government has brutally cracked down on a wave of dissent known as Hirak ash-Shaabi, jailing journalists and activists who were outraged about the death of local fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri. Having been recognized by the U.S. in 1786, Morocco has one of the longest diplomatic histories with the U.S. of any country, up through its participation in the George W. Bush-era extraordinary rendition program.
“If they send her back to her country, she will be detained, she will be potentially tortured if not worse,” Malika warned. “Imagine what that will do to her child.”
Siham has a clear-cut case for asylum, “but generally speaking she has never had a chance to present a full asylum case,” Cameron said. “She did try to reopen her immigration proceedings in 2013 after the first round of threats. The court did not find that they were sufficient to justify reopening.”
Siham’s situation is dire, and so is that of her son Naseem. But it is not without hope. Supporters of Siham have asked the public to help free her.
What you can do to support Siham
Call, email, Tweet:
Demand that Siham be released immediately and reunited with her son. Demand that her son be allowed to be placed with family friend immediately.
Follow for Updates: (legal fund/petitions/instructions)
Maura Healey; Attorney General’s Office
One Ashburton Place
Boston, MA 02108-1518
Phone: (617) 727-2200
TTY: (617) 727-4765
Speak with a Consumer Specialist
Maura Healey Twitter
Department of Children and Family Services (DCF)
Main (617) 748-2000
Congressman Seth Moulton (Seth Moulton )
Washington Office – Phone: (202) 225-8020
Salem Office – Phone: (978) 531-1669
Twitter handle: @teammoulton
Elizabeth Warren ( U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren )
Boston Office – Phone: (617) 565-3170
Washington Office – Phone: (202) 224-4543
Twitter handle: @SenWarren
Senator Edward J. Markey
Boston Office – Phone: 617-565-8519
Washington Office Phone: 202-224-2742
Twitter handle: @SenMarkey
* Tom Arabia is a guest writer and member of the DSA Boston.