Two immigration officers approached Amer Adi Othman’s ex-wife outside her home one morning in April 1990 with a form to sign. Scared of the two strange men, she signed it quickly and returned to her two children inside.
Nearly 30 years later, the form is at the heart of the government’s case to deport Othman.
Othman, a 57-year-old Youngstown, Ohio man, was detained Tuesday and scheduled for deportation to his native Jordan. A father of four, Othman is married to a U.S. citizen, and is beloved in his Ohio community. He has followed immigration law to the letter, his lawyer says. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement accuses him of entering a sham marriage nearly 40 years ago based on the form his ex-wife signed. But the woman swore under oath in 2007 that she’d signed the form under coercion from officers whom she believed “wanted me to say what they wanted to hear.”
Othman’s family said they haven’t been able to talk to him since Tuesday night.
“He had no visitation rights. That was a little bit worrisome for us because he is on a hunger strike. We’ve been worried about his health,” his daughter Lina Adi told The Daily Beast after flying to Ohio from Colorado once she found out about her father’s detention.
Originally from Jordan, Othman is a leader in his Youngstown neighborhood, his congressman Rep. Tim Ryan said.
“The guy’s a pillar of the community. He creates jobs, has had several businesses,” Ryan told The Daily Beast. “He was the first one to come into downtown Youngstown and make an investment. Since then, we’ve had a huge revitalization in our downtown … He would pass out 300 turkeys on Thanksgiving to the poorest people in the community. He’s the best guy you’d ever want to meet in your life.”
Ohio state Sen. Joe Schiavoni agreed. “I’ve lived in the Youngstown area almost all my life, and I have watched the revitalization of downtown. [Othman] has been a key to that redevelopment. He brought a little grocery store right in downtown Youngstown, when nobody else would.”
On Thursday night, other politicians also moved in favor of Othman. The House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security voted unanimously for a private bill to keep him in the country.
"He remains in ICE custody this morning but the unanimous vote should stay the deportation for at least 6 months and ICE is expected to release him," his lawyer David Leopold told The Daily Beast on Friday.
Othman met his first wife, whose name The Daily Beast is withholding, at a San Diego, California restaurant in 1980. She was a cook. Othman was a busboy. They lived together five months before marrying in a ceremony in front of family and friends, she said in a 2007 affidavit in one of his immigration cases
“The possibility of Amer receiving a green card never crossed my mind at any point during our courtship or marriage ceremony,” the first wife declared in a sworn affidavit. “We married for no other reason than that we loved each other and wanted to be together.” They didn’t apply for Othman’s green card until nearly a year after their marriage, she said. But the young couple split after two years together, citing irreconcilable differences. Othman’s ex-wife said in the affidavit that she’d become involved with another man during the marriage. Then, in April 1990, Othman’s ex-wife received a visit from the agents from the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“They knocked on the door at about 7:30 or 8 in the morning, when I was still in my bedclothes,” she swore in the affidavit. She had been home alone getting her eight-year-old twins ready for school, and she stepped outside the house to keep the federal agents out of her young sons’ sight.
“All I wanted was for them to go away and leave me alone so that I could go back to feeding my children and getting them to school,” she said.
Her conversation with the INS agents lasted less than an hour, and she did not remember everything she told them.
“I asked the men if they had Amer’s contact information. I was worried about him and also angry that he was why the men were there. The men said they could not give me that information, and that made me even angrier.”
The INS agents left and returned a few days later to the ex-wife’s fury. “I have an Irish temper and I can get very angry,” she wrote. “As a natural-born U.S. citizen, I am unfamiliar with immigration procedures.”
The INS agents met her outside her house and gave her a statement to sign. “I got the sense that the officers wanted me to say what they wanted to hear so that [they] would leave me alone,” she swore. Aware of what prying neighbors might think, scared for the two children unsupervised in her home, and furious at the continued disruptions, Othman’s ex-wife signed the statement on the spot. She doesn’t recall ever receiving a copy.
The affidavit did not convince a judge to grant Othman a visa. In 2012, an appellate court ruled that Othman’s ex-wife’s affidavit should not outweigh her 1990 statement. The court pointed to lack of evidence that the couple had actually held a wedding ceremony, and thatthe other man with whom the ex-wife became involved had roomed with the young couple.
“Over the last decade, Mr. Othman’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,” an ICE spokesperson said. In each review, the courts have uniformly held that Mr. Othman does not have a legal basis to remain in the U.S. As such, Mr. Othman will remain in ICE custody pending removal from the United States.”
Ordinarily, an ex-spouse’s testimony wouldn’t matter in a case like Othman’s because he had a green card, which does not expire due to divorce. But green card holders can lose their status if they spend significant time outside the country.
After Othman got married to his current wife, the couple lived in Brazil for more than a year, and his green card status was stripped. When he learned what happened after moving back to the U.S., Othman attempted to apply for a green card through his current wife—and was denied because of his ex-wife.
“There’s this arcane rule that says if you’ve ever tried to get a green card of convenience through marriage, you’re forever precluded from getting a green card,” his lawyer Leopold said.
“The problem with that is the finding that he entered a marriage of convenience was a finding that was made years after that marriage had ended. The finding was made without his knowledge, without any notice to him, without any opportunity to defend himself, to cross-examine witnesses. It was not made in an open courtroom by any judge. It was made by INS bureaucrat in some windowless room.”
Othman and his wife didn’t learn about his green card trouble until he applied for one through their marriage to her.
That’s when he saw the statement his ex-wife had signed, his lawyer said. The two had renewed their friendship since 1990, and she was surprised when she saw the text of the statement. She didn’t remember saying all those things, she swore in the affidavit.
“I am making this true statement now because I had no clue that my actions would cause Amer such trouble,” she swore in the 2007 affidavit. “I want to set the record straight. Now that I have seen the statement, I want the truth to be properly recorded in my own words. Although it has been painful recalling all these events, it is important to me to make the truth known.”
But despite the affidavit, Othman’s immigration troubles worsened. He was listed for deportation, but “was a low-priority case under the Obama administration,” Leopold said. “For years, even though he was under a final administrative order, he was living and working here, and reporting to immigration dutifully.”
Rep. Ryan intervened on Othman’s behalf twice, filing private bills on Othman’s behalf with the House’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.
“If [committee members] ask for a report on the case from ICE, then proceedings stop so the committee can look at the private bill and the case,” Ryan said. “Normally it stops all the deportation proceedings, and hopefully tries to find some resolutions. We did that in 2013 and 2016.”
Leopold says private bills lost power after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“Once the new administration came in and priorities were thrown out, it became ‘grab whoever you can for deportation,’” he said. “They put an ankle bracelet on him in September and told him they wanted him out by January 7.”
Othman complied with the order. He prepared to leave the country where his four children had been born.
“He’d bought his ticket, his family had sold their house,” Leopold said. “He’d said goodbye to the community, a public goodbye the Thursday before the 7th. The next day, I got a phone call from ICE telling me ‘the deportation is off. We’re not gonna insist that your client leave.’”
Instead, Leopold said, ICE asked Othman to stop by their headquarters for a routine check-in on January 16. Leopold almost didn’t accompany him on the visit, which promised to be minor. But he tagged along, in the hopes that ICE would back off altogether, or at least set a later deportation date. In a show of solidarity, a crowd of Othman’s community members, along with Ryan accompanied Othman and his wife up to the door.
“We went in. They closed the door,” Leopold said. “It locked behind him, and they said ‘we’re not gonna beat around the bush here, we’re taking you into custody.’”
ICE sent Othman’s wife and lawyer away.
“She was in shock. She didn’t get to say bye,” his daugher Lina said. “They just took him and put him behind the glass. She had to talk to him behind a glass on a telephone. In the last 29 years they’ve been married, they’ve been side by side."
Leopold described ICE’s arrest and detention of a man who had previously bought his own plane ticket back to Jordan as “brazen cruelty.”
“I’ve lost cases, I’ve won cases, I’ve seen people detained who I didn’t thinks should be detained, he said. “I’ve done this a lot, and I’ve been able to walk away from every case maybe not agreeing with the outcome, but being able to understand why the judge or agency made the decision in most cases. I walked out of ICE headquarters yesterday baffled as an attorney and terrified as an American.”
The people of Youngstown continue to support Adi’s family and their downtown deli, which doubles as a hookah bar at night.
“I think the community’s eyes have opened up. They’re ashamed that someone would be treated this way,” Lina said.
—Additional reporting by Brandy Zadrozny