Why This Mother Is Being Deported After 23 Years in the United States

"I live in fear. I live in fear all the time. And we don't deserve that."

After 23 years living in the United States as an immigrant from Morocco, Fatiha Elgharib received a letter from the Columbus, Ohio, branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She was asked to appear on August 22 to "discuss your immigration status."


Nervous, Elgharib's daughter called the ICE office for clarification. The officer informed her that Elgharib would be picking a date for deportation back to Morocco. The mother of four, who came to the U.S. on a visa to provide her children – including a son who suffers from Down syndrome and heart conditions —  with a better life told ATTN: she couldn't breathe when she heard the news.

"All these years—I've been here 23 years—how did this happen to me?"


Since President Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, in a speech fueled by racial animus against Mexican immigrants, Elgharib had become a voracious consumer of cable news, spending hours in front of the television following the latest developments on the immigration debate playing out across the country.

"Every day, I watch the news. Every day," Elgharib said. "I'm not going to lie, I was worried. But I said, look the president said we're going to target only the criminals. People who don't harm us, no violent stuff, we're going to leave them alone."


Her 18-year-old daughter, Wafaa Hamdi, told ATTN: that she'd encourage her mother to look at a different channel to stop scaring herself. But the family's worst fears — that Trump would make good on his promise to escalate immigration enforcement efforts — came to fruition when they learned of the deportation proceedings on August 8.

"My mother is the root to my family," Hamdi said, tearing up. "She is what keeps us all together."

"She's the one who has me push myself in my education because she brought me here to make sure that I get successful, have a career, and make something out of myself. She's the one who reminds me daily that I have to do that. If she gets sent away, I won't have motivation. I won't have my mom with me to say goodnight or say good morning to."


ICE is less likely to make exceptions under Trump. 

Despite vows to prioritize deportation for undocumented immigrants with serious criminal histories, ICE has adopted an enforcement strategy that's put all undocumented immigrants at risk. Shiu-Ming Cheer, a senior staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, told ATTN: that Elgharib's situation has become increasingly common under the Trump administration. 

She said that ICE does have the authority to exercise discretion when deciding whom to deport and things were a little different under Obama. During his presidency, a stay-at-home mother like Elgharib who acts as the sole caregiver for a son, a U.S. citizen, with various medical complications, could feel relatively assured that she would be protected, as long as she followed simple rules such as checking in with ICE agents on a regular basis.


"There was still this idea of priorities, where the administration wouldn't deport everybody even if they were technically deportable and allowed many people to stay in the country," Cheer said. "The difference we're seeing now is that under the Trump administration, when people go in for their check-ins with ICE, more of them are being detained and actually being processed to be deported."

Yet the Elgharib family, dismayed as they may be, isn't ready to give up.

Hamdi was on her phone on Sunday morning when her mother chided her for spending time on social media and asked, "What else can you be doing on your phone?"

"I sat back and thought about it. I need to do something," Hamdi said. "Change can't be done unless you get up and do something about it. I'm on social media all the time, and the one thing that matters to me most is my mother. The fact that this can help me... I'm going to do something about it."


"I wrote a post [about my family's situation] on Facebook, and then after Facebook, I screenshot my Facebook post and I put it on Twitter," she said.

That tweet was shared by friends, and then friends of friends, and then sympathetic strangers around the country; it has nearly 115,000 retweets as of August 16. The outpouring of support encouraged Hamdi to create a petition on Change.org, which is about 9,000 signatures away from hitting its 75,000 signature goal.

"I was just happy when I had 50 retweets," Hamdi said. "I was completely overwhelmed at 1,000 retweets. I was in tears at 2,000 retweets. And then it was getting late, so I put up a petition, and then the petition is what really blew my mind because I really had never thought this many people would care about my family out of all people in the world."

The family is now also raising funds for an immigration lawyer to contest the deportation on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe.


Having an immigration lawyer is critical in cases like this, Cheer said, because undocumented individuals are not constitutionally entitled to a court-appointed attorney in immigration court if they can't afford one, and because immigration law is on par with the U.S. tax code in terms of complexity.

"In many parts of the country, there are free legal agencies that can take on cases pro bono, without charging the clients," Cheer said. "But the sad reality is that many people do face an immigration judge or face deportation alone, without any representation since they're not guaranteed the right to representation the same way that defendants in criminal court are guaranteed attorneys."

There's still hope, Cheer said, especially in light of the attention Hamdi's social media activity has generated. Elgharib, her three daughters, her son, and her husband, are clinging on to that. 

UPDATE August 17, 2017 11:40pm PST: On Thursday, ICE provided ATTN: with a statement on Elgharib's deportation proceedings. It's included in full below.

“Over the last decade, Ms. El Gharib’s immigration case has undergone exhaustive judicial review at multiple levels of the nation’s courts, including before the immigration courts, federal appeals courts and U.S. district court. In each review, the courts have uniformly held that Ms. El Gharib does not have a legal basis to remain in the U.S.

In an exercise of discretion, the agency has allowed her to remain free from custody while timely finalizing her departure plans, rather than be detained and deported."