Mohammad Abdollahi was putting his life on the line when he lobbied for immigration reform in Arizona this week, experts say.
The undocumented Ann Arbor resident, along with three other students, was arrested Monday and later detained by immigration officials in Arizona when he refused to leave Sen. John McCain’s office. The incidents spawned a response across the country, including two vigils, a protest and hunger strike among some Michigan students.
Though the four have been released, they now face deportation hearings in immigration courts in their home states, officials said Wednesday.
But what makes Abdollahi’s case unique is he is gay, and deportation for him could mean death in his native country of Iran.
“His safety and well-being would be in immediate jeopardy if he is returned to Iran,” said Steve Ralls, spokesman for Immigration Equality, a New York-based legal aid organization for gay immigrants. “It is a notorious homophobic country where lesbians and gays routinely face torture, violence and even execution. It is among the most dangerous countries on the globe for lesbian and gay people.”
But Abdollahi could seek asylum because of the violence in Iran, Ralls added. A policy in place since the mid-1990s requires that asylum seekers file paperwork within a year of their arrival in the U.S.
“His case presents some challenges,” Ralls said. “It is a high bar to meet but it is not an impossible one.”
Abdollahi, who came to the U.S. when he was 3 with his family, said he was aware of the risk he was taking when he refused to leave McCain’s office. But he thought it was critical to be part of civil disobedience to pressure lawmakers to pass the DREAM Act — federal legislation that would create citizenship for undocumented youths and give them higher education access — even if it means he could get deported to Iran.
“It’s a worry,” said Abdollahi, 24. “But if we can get the DREAM Act passed it would help so many lives, it would be worth it. I have seen too many friends get deported.”
Abdollahi’s father came to the U.S. on a student visa 21 years ago, and the family lost their legal status when Abdollahi was 8 or 9 years old, he said. He graduated from Huron High School, and went to Washtenaw Community College.
In 2007, he sought to transfer to Eastern Michigan University to train to be a social worker. A counselor gave him an acceptance letter, and five minutes later took it back after they became aware of his citizenship status, he said.