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For Saudi, divorce means deportation
Popular on ASU campus, he's no longer welcome in U.S.

Sarah Muench
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 20, 2006 12:00 AM

Former Arizona State University student body president Yaser Alamoodi was closing in on his college diploma.

But earlier this month, just days before Sept. 11, five U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents banged on his door and placed him in handcuffs.

While he sits in a detention center in Eloy, waiting to be deported to a country he has never even visited, his lawyer and national groups are fighting to ensure he stays in the U.S.

"Never in a million years did I think what I would joke about would actually happen," Alamoodi said in an interview Tuesday via phone.

The detention of the 29-year-old Tempe resident, originally from Saudi Arabia, is a product of beefed-up post-9/11 immigration enforcement.

Alamoodi awoke Sept. 6 at 6 a.m. to ICE agents ready to take him to the deportation center, he said.

They said his immigration papers were denied after his wife, an American, revoked his immigration petition in August as part of the process of their divorce, according to Alamoodi and ICE. He had to leave the country, and the agents transported him to Eloy, where he has been ever since.

His swift apprehension resulted from a newly created Compliance Enforcement Unit in Phoenix, which deals with people who entered the country legally but violated their status, such as overstayed their visas, said Russell Ahr, an ICE spokesman.

"There's a dedicated unit . . . that processed that he was ineligible for residency . . . that resulted in the location and apprehension that he was in violation of laws of the United States," Ahr said.

Alamoodi thinks he was picked up so quickly because he is from Saudi Arabia, and he stressed to ICE agents that he is not a threat:

"I'm extremely secular. I was the president of my university. I have a commitment to everything America stands for, women's rights to civil rights."

The outspoken, active and well-known ASU student came to the United States in 1996. His citizenship and passport are from Yemen, where his father was born, but Alamoodi has never been there, he said. If he's deported, that's where he'll be forced to go.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the same year he started at ASU, Alamoodi has had his share of encounters with the federal authorities.

In 2002, he returned to Saudi Arabia to visit family in the summer and was unable to return for eight months because of security checks, he said.

And in the summer of 2004, an agent from the Joint Task Force on Terrorism showed up at his Tempe home to question him, asking if he knew of any upcoming terrorist attacks, he said.

Alamoodi was also a columnist for ASU's student newspaper, the State Press.

The last time he went to visit family, his name showed up on a no-fly list when he was supposed to come back, but officials changed it while he was at the airport, he said.

In August, he and his wife, Joy Hepp, whom he met at ASU, decided they would end their marriage. The marriage had guaranteed Alamoodi's stay in the United States and his pending green card. Hepp went to ICE and revoked Alamoodi's immigration papers as part of their divorce proceedings, she said, and a month later, agents arrested him.

Alamoodi and his lawyer think he has little chance to stay in the country unless his wife stops the divorce process.

"There are tons of people in a situation like his and Immigration will come into contact with them and say they don't have enough room for them and let them go," said Alamoodi's immigration attorney, Eric Bjotvedt. "To me, this is like they are singling him out."

Bjotvedt said that usually the government sends a letter saying people have a certain number of days to voluntarily leave the country before agents pick them up for deportation. Alamoodi said he never received such a letter.

Ahr said Alamoodi's quick arrest had nothing to with the fact that he is from a "country of interest," or a list of 25 predominantly Muslim countries the U.S. government created post-9/11 as part of the counter-terrorism Patriot Act.

"We are going to act on the person no matter where they come from," Ahr said. "I don't think statistically the number of people from countries of interest removed are any way skewed whatsoever. The vast majority are not from countries of interest."

Bjotvedt said Alamoodi could remain in Eloy for at least six months, possibly for years, to fight his deportation. Or he could go to Yemen and attempt to get a student visa to return to ASU to finish his studies, which could be difficult, considering his current status. Or he could regain his status if his wife stops the divorce.

An immigration attorney unrelated to the case said Alamoodi's deportation is part of the post-9/11 world.

"It's not surprising. His attorney might make a big fuss about why, why, why, but Congress and the executive branch concluded that certain people from certain countries needed to register," Randy Tunac said. "All this surprise and confusion aside, he's a clear person to be removed, and so the question now is if the laws in and of themselves are fair."

The American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, the Muslim American Society and friends are raising money to help pay Alamoodi's legal fees.

Mae Innabi, chair of the Phoenix chapter of the committee and a friend of Alamoodi, said she never thought it would happen to him.

"Not to Yaser. Yaser is probably one of the sweetest and kindest people you will ever meet," she said. "He stands firmly to his beliefs, and he believes in freedom and freedom of speech. He's always been a person that someone would look up to."