With immigration reform bogged down in Congress and perennially on the back burner, the Obama administration is pushing a more aggressive deportation agenda. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to deport a record number of people this year.
If the agency has their way, one of them will be Ola Kaso, an 18-year-old girl from Sterling Heights. She’ll be forced to leave just days after she graduates high school as one of the top students in her class.
“It was really great. It was so great to see the energy in the air, from all the people,” Ola Kaso says, recalling her trip to President Obama’s inauguration festivities in Washington, DC.
Ola’s face lights up when she talks about it. She went with a student leadership group from Warren Cousino High School, where she’s a senior carrying a 4.4 gradepoint average. That’s right: a 4.4. Until just a couple weeks ago, Ola thought she was headed off to the University of Michigan’s pre-med program in the fall.
But while she looks and sounds like an American teenager, Ola’s not a U.S. citizen. She was born in Albania, and came to the U.S. with her mother and older sister when she was five. They entered the country legally on visitors’ visas, and applied for political asylum. But their case got thrown out when their former lawyer failed to file an appeal in 2003. Since then, they’ve been in a kind of immigration no-man’s land, under an “order of supervision” that requires occasional visits to Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Detroit.
The Kasos say they were assured Monday, March 28th would be another one of those routine visits—even though the ICE agent had uncharacteristically requested that Ola come on a school day. Ola’s sister, Nevila Wing, says the officer asked some questions, then asked her to step out in the hallway.
“He said it wouldn’t take more than 5 minutes. It wouldn’t impact Ola going back to school or missing first hour. And two seconds later I get called back in and I see my sister and my mom…you know, handcuffed. And everything we were told up until that point was a lie.”
The officer told Nevila that Ola and their mother were being detained and would be deported “soon.” Nevila frantically called the Kasos’ current lawyer, Ashley Mammo. Mammo saw Ola briefly before hurrying into conference with ICE officials.
As she hastily put together a case to stop the Kaso’s immediate deportation, Mammo asked to see Ola again. She says ICE officers told her Ola had been taken to jail.
“Come to find out later in the day, when Ola was finally released about 6 pm, she was in an office across the street from where I was handcuffed to a chair for seven hours.”
Mammo did eventually manage to get the Kasos deportation delayed until June, giving Ola just enough time to finish high school.
ICE’s Detroit field office didn’t return calls for comment on this story. But Mammo says stories like this are more and more common as the Obama administration ramps up deportations. ICE deported a record 393,000 people last fiscal year, and wants to push that up over 400,000 this year.
Mammo says in the meantime, cases like the Kasos make it clear there’s a gap between immigration law and logic.
“People find it difficult to understand why we would want to get rid of people like this. And it is illogical, and it doesn’t make sense. But unfortunately, that’s how our laws are written.”
Nevila Wing married a U.S. citizen and now has a greencard. But she’s horrified that her family may be torn apart.
Nevila has also found it hard to explain what’s going on to her mother. She says her mom is willing to do anything—bond the family bakery, even wear an electronic tether—so they can stay.
“I said mom, it’s not about you proving yourself…it’s just, you know, that there’s certain guidelines and laws that they have to follow as well. It’s not about that. And she’s like, ‘Well, why isn’t it? Why is it so black and white? What can I do to prove I am worthy of staying here?’”
As the word of the Kaso’s story has spread, Ola says friends, schoolmates, even strangers have come out in force to support her. She wants to use that small movement to give others a voice.
“If I have to leave, I just want to know that people are more aware about what’s going on. And that this is a tragedy that’s happening to students all across America. It’s not just me.”
Ola says her family has always known they may have to leave the country she considers home. They’re not here illegally, but they’re not here legally, either. And in the current political atmosphere, it seems they’re not allowed to stay.
But Ola also has some powerful forces on her side. Just this week, a group of U.S. Senators sent President Obama a letter, asking that his Administration exercise “prosecutorial discretion” and avoid deporting a select group of immigrant students. Ola is part of that group.