Living civics lesson: teacher's asylum bid

The case of Obain Attouoman in Boston feeds into a larger debate over immigration controls.

At Fenway High School, special-education teacher Obain Attouoman is so beloved by his students that he's become a verb: "Obaining" means to dress up, reflecting Mr. Attouoman's penchant for three-piece suits.

But in a few days, his name may connote something far weightier for the teens who have rallied around their Ivory Coast mentor as he's sought - and failed - to obtain asylum. He missed a hearing date in 2001 and, unless someone listens to his last-minute plea, has been ordered to leave the school and country by Friday.

His case has become a cause célèbre for his students, but it also comes at a time when immigration debate is building nationwide. Congress is considering a homeland-securitybill that would make it harder for some foreigners to prove persecution in their homelands, raising difficult questions about where to draw the lines on immigration.

Attouoman's case, which includes more than three months spent in detention, has set the student body ablaze. Though an asylum officer said in 2001 that his claim of political persecution was not strong enough for asylum, students have protested fiercely: sending out thousands of postcards and letters, passing out leaflets, meeting with politicians, and painting banners and posters that they've carried across the city on his behalf.

In the process, the halls of Fenway High have turned into a living civics lesson.

"They are my angels," says Attouoman, sitting in front of a board with the word "Obain" written all over it. "Teenagers are not what they are believed to be. They are tackling a political issue that most adults would refuse to touch."

Twice their efforts have paid off. Now they face what could be a final turning point, as political leaders - from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to Sen. John Kerry - have all voiced their support, but still his deportation order stands.

"I can't bear to see him go," said Brian Rose, an 11th-grader who was at school on a recent snow day to strategize with fellow students - an effort he now feels may pay off. "We've learned that just because you're not an adult doesn't mean you can't make a difference."

In 1992 Attouoman left Ivory Coast, where he says he had been imprisoned for his political affiliations. He began teaching in the United States on an exchange visa and in 1994 applied for asylum, the same year he started working in the Boston Public Schools system. His initial application, was denied in 2001.

It was Attouoman's failure to appear at immigration court on June 7, 2001, that led to his deportation order. He missed the hearing, he says, because he misread the handwritten date, and was ordered deported in absentia the following day. He has tried, futilely, to reopen his case ever since.

When he was arrested in November 2003, it was his students who helped obtain his release from jail in March 2004. They also rallied last month outside the Boston field office of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which helped him obtain a three-week reprieve to find another host country. He maintains his life is in danger in his native country and, though his bags are only half packed, he might have to depart for Senegal tomorrow.

Many at the school cannot understand why a teacher who is so loved must go. Antionetta Kelley, a 10th-grader, says he's like a father figure who helps her with math homework, discusses social issues, and lends her lunch money. "I feel like I've known him a lifetime," she says.

But the case highlights the complexities of asylum in the US, especially post-9/11. Although the number of asylum applications has dropped since the 1990s, officials still must review thousands of cases each year. "The rate of baseless claims is an area of particular concern," says John Keeley, director of communications at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

Now, Congress is considering the Real ID Act. Sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R) of Wisconsin and passed last month in the House, it would, among other things, tighten the grounds upon which foreigners could receive asylum. It has been touted as a counterterror initiative, but immigration advocates worry that legitimate claims of persecution will go unmet.

"There is no question that if the Real ID Act were to pass, it would be significantly more difficult for individuals to obtain asylum in the US," says Marshall Fitz, associate director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The case at Fenway High School has expanded the political and social outlook of the students there. When Attouoman was arrested, the school initially kept silent. "We felt it was too harsh for them," he says.

Now they have been infused with a sense of empowerment, says Abbie Schirmer, a 20-year math teacher at the school. Shortly after Attouoman's release from jail, the school's cafeteria workers faced job losses. A student overheard a conversation that Ms. Schirmer was having about it in the lunch line and interrupted them. "We just freed our teacher," the student said to them, "so if you need any help, let us know."

As Friday approaches, the students and teachers at Fenway have not lost their drive. They've planned a third protest at the Boston field office of ICE. They've also brainstormed ways to fund a trip to Washington.

The Fenway community has turned attention to the New England field office director of ICE, Bruce Chadbourne, who they say could delay Attouoman's deportation, at least until the end of the school year.

Paula Grenier, a spokeswoman at the Boston field office of ICE, says their role is to uphold the court order for removal.

According to Susan Cohen, a lawyer representing Attouoman pro bono, Mr. Chadbourne has said that if he were to grant an exception in this case, then he'd have to grant it in every case.

But Ms. Cohen claims that Attouoman's case has a clear distinction. "His case is about much more than an individual," she says. "It's about a Boston community, and kids who will be adversely affected."

Peggy Kemp, who runs Fenway High School, says she has been waking up in the middle of the night wondering why a figure who is so respected must go - especially in the middle of the school year.

"I don't know if people don't understand the importance of a positive experience with a teacher," she says, "or how detrimental it can be to lose that."

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