A Lebanese man facing deportation fights to stay with his wife and son in Minnesota.
Like many immigrants, Assaf Mhanna wanted to build a life for himself in America. After fleeing Lebanon's political turmoil, he entered the United States in 1998. He married a woman from Minnesota and worked 14-hour days at his family's convenience store in St. Paul. He and his wife planned to have children and move to a bigger house in Roseville.
But all of those plans are now on hold. The U.S. government ordered Mhanna, 37, to return to Lebanon in December. For the past 43 days, he has sat in the Ramsey County jail. While his family continues the legal fight, they know that any day could be his last on American soil.
"It's like waiting for a death every single day," said Tammy Mhanna, who married Assaf in 2004.
On Thursday, Assaf Mhanna will ask a federal judge to temporarily delay his deportation while he presses his case for asylum. If he fails, he could be barred from returning to the U.S. for at least 10 years.
Most foreigners who marry U.S. citizens are allowed to remain in the country. In fact, the number of foreign-born individuals who received permanent resident status after marrying an American has doubled since 1999, reaching 265,671 in 2008, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The government rejected 12.5 percent of the 741,851 individuals seeking residency on family grounds in 2008, records show.
But Assaf Mhanna's case is different. When he walked up to the U.S-Mexico border seeking asylum, he mistakenly told a customs officer that he was American, according to his court testimony. Though he quickly corrected himself and told the officer he was Lebanese, the brief encounter has plagued his battle to remain in the country. Government officials accuse him of intentionally lying about his citizenship to gain entry to the U.S.
Immigration law experts say Mhanna's case illustrates how much harder it has become for the spouses of U.S. citizens to become permanent residents since Sept. 11, 2001. The government has an extensive list of factors that could result in a denial of residency, including links to terrorists, a significant criminal conviction, a major communicable disease and polygamy.
Denver attorney Laura Lichter, who specializes in immigration cases, said government officials are taking a hard line on anybody with a questionable background, no matter what kind of roots they've established or how much they've contributed to their community. She said Mhanna deserves a chance to stay.
"You've got somebody who has no criminal history, comes from a country that is a very difficult place to live at best, who has a U.S. citizen wife and family and what are we going to do about it?'' said Lichter, an officer with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a nonprofit that advocates for immigration rights. "The answer is do the right thing."
Mhanna's supporters include state Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, and state Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL- Chisholm, who wrote a letter in January asking for Mhanna's release.
"An American wife, a family, a taxpaying businessman and over a decade without incident in the USA should not only be proof enough but should also be very good reasons to allow the family to stay together and to stay in Minnesota," the legislators said in the letter.
A spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, declined to discuss the case.
By the time Mhanna left Lebanon, most of his family members, including his mother and his brother, had already moved to the U.S. When his visa application was blocked, he decided to try his luck at the border.
He flew to Mexico City. On December 8, 1998 he walked up to an immigration checkpoint in Arizona. When an officer asked if he was American, he said 'yes.' In court records, Mhanna said he quickly realized that he was supposed to say he was from Lebanon, so he did. They detained him, brought him in for more questioning and released him to his brother, who lived in Seattle.
A couple months later, Mhanna got permission to work in the U.S. and moved to Minnesota to be closer to the state's large Lebanese community. His request for asylum was first denied in 2002, when a federal judge found that he was not facing persecution back home in Lebanon. The judge also concluded that he falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen. But government officials allowed Mhanna to remain in the U.S. while he appealed the decision.
Mhanna met his future wife at an Ethiopian restaurant in Minneapolis. He and Tammy were married in a small ceremony in October 2004 and settled in his Roseville home with her son.
A few months after they were married, the Board of Immigration Appeals again denied his request for asylum. His lawyer missed a 45-day deadline to file another appeal, which laid the groundwork for deportation proceedings.
In 2005, the U.S. government ordered Mhanna out of the country, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals continued to give him permission to live in the U.S. while he tried to reopen his case.
Last fall, things started looking better for Mhanna. An administrative law ruling forced the government to reconsider residency for people who were married to Americans but had been told to leave the country.
In December, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear his appeal in the asylum case, but for the first time in more than 10 years, they revoked his ability to stay in the country. On December 29, when he checked in at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Bloomington, Mhanna was taken into custody.
His family still held out hope that his marriage to Tammy would allow him to become a permanent resident, but in January that application was denied. The government official who denied the application said he wasn't eligible because of his false claim to citizenship 11 years earlier.
"It's never ending and it's never winning,'' Tammy Mhanna said.
Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628