By RYAN STANTON, DETROIT (AP) — Fifteen months ago, Yousef Ajin was in federal detention, separated from his family and facing deportation.
Now the 49-year-old Ann Arbor father of four is a bonafide citizen of the United States.
After winning his battle to stay in the country with his U.S.-citizen wife and children, the longtime Ann Arbor resident was among 80 immigrants from 27 countries who took the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony May 10 at the U.S. District Court in downtown Detroit.
He teared up afterward.
“It’s good. I’m like anybody who’s an American citizen. I have rights for everything,” Ajin said, adding it’s a lot of stress off his shoulders to know he likely won’t face deportation ever again.
His family was there to celebrate his achievement, along with Community High School theater teacher Quinn Strassel, who helped raise money last year to cover Ajin’s legal expenses.
“He really is a good person and today has been a very happy day,” Strassel said.
The Ann Arbor News reports that Ajin, who is from Jordan, came to the U.S. legally about two decades ago and has been a legal permanent resident with a green card, living in Ann Arbor with his wife, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, and their children, who were born here and attend Ann Arbor schools. Ajin works as a delivery driver for a local restaurant.
When U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ramped up deportation efforts after President Donald Trump took office, Ajin was targeted because of past crimes and a past deportation order.
With criminal convictions from the early 2000s for shoplifting and using a credit card that wasn’t his, mistakes from which he says he learned and for which he already served probation and paid fines many years ago, Ajin was deportable. A judge ordered his deportation in 2012 after he missed an immigration court hearing.
After that, Ajin said he was placed in a special program similar to probation, cooperating with ICE and checking in regularly.
But just days after Trump took office, things changed and his next check-in turned into arrest and detainment.
He spent the next month in jail before a judge granted a rare deportation waiver following a two-hour hearing in Detroit Immigration Court. Because Ajin has a special-needs child, the judge determined his deportation would cause extreme hardship for the family.
Ajin, who said he has wanted to become a citizen for several years, said he applied to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services this past year after his deportation was waived.
On Thursday morning in Detroit, Judge Mark Goldsmith administered the citizenship oath, which includes renouncing allegiance to any foreign state, agreeing to support and defend the U.S. Constitution and laws against all enemies, bearing arms on behalf of the U.S. if required and agreeing to perform non-combative service in the Armed Forces if required. The judge talked about his own family’s immigration history and how America is a land of immigrants.
He underscored the responsibilities of being a citizen of the United States, including participation in the democratic process, and sang “America the Beautiful,” encouraging others to sing along.
The countries represented by those who took the oath were Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Canada, China, Egypt, Ghana, India, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Russia, Serbia, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine and Yemen.
The USCIS Detroit Field Office handles naturalization cases for all of Michigan, reviewing thousands of applications each year to see who merits citizenship. In fiscal year 2017, the office completed 14,600 cases, with 12,750 people becoming citizens.
In the first six months of fiscal year 2018, from last October through this March, the office rendered another 8,060 decisions, with 6,880 people granted citizenship throughout Michigan.
USCIS spokeswoman Anita Rios Moore said there are about 15 citizenship ceremonies per month in Michigan.
At most ceremonies, she said, about 75 to 80 people take the oath, though some ceremonies can be smaller or larger.
She said it typically takes about seven months for someone to go from applying for naturalization to becoming a citizen.
In the first six months of fiscal year 2018, the USCIS Detroit office denied about 1,170 applications.
Ruby Robinson, an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Ann Arbor, said the fear of being kicked out of the country for relatively minor offenses is driving many legal permanent residents to seek citizenship. Even after becoming citizens, he said, some still worry they could lose their status, which is possible.
“The fear is real. It’s pervasive,” Robinson said. Robinson said the same fear also discourages some from applying if they’ve ever had a negative interaction with the criminal justice system or a traumatic experience with the immigration system.
“Going through the immigration system lawfully is a really anxiety-inducing and scary process for a lot of people,” he said, indicating some people with green cards who are eligible to seek citizenship will just renew their green cards instead because they’re worried about going through the process and being scrutinized.
MIRC advises some immigrants not to seek citizenship if they have something in their past that could make them deportable.
In one case, Robinson said, there was a man who, as a legal permanent resident, voted in a local election because he had been mistakenly registered to vote by the Michigan Secretary of State. He said the man didn’t realize the negative consequences of that and MIRC advised him not to apply for citizenship.
Robinson noted applicants are asked by USCIS if they’ve ever violated the law. In one case, he said, MIRC represented a woman who answered honestly and disclosed that she used medical marijuana, which is legal under state law but not federal law.
He said USCIS denied her application because she violated federal law and could not demonstrate good moral character.
Some of the general eligibility requirements to apply for citizenship include being at least 18 years old, being a legal permanent resident for at least five years, being a person of good moral character, demonstrating an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution, having a basic understanding of U.S. history and government, being able to read, write and speak basic English, and taking an oath of allegiance to the U.S.
It costs $725 to apply for citizenship, though there are fee waivers available based on inability to pay.
Applying for citizenship is the capstone to someone’s immigration journey and not a place to begin, Robinson said.
“If it were just as simple as submitting an application for people who are undocumented, I would probably be out of a job,” he said.
MIRC helped about 165 people become citizens in 2017 and is on pace to exceed that number this year, Robinson said, noting another one of MIRC’s clients took the oath on Thursday. He said two, first-year law students from the University of Michigan prepared her application for naturalization under MIRC’s supervision.
Robinson said earlier this month more than a third of MIRC’s nearly 90 naturalization cases so far this year involved Washtenaw County residents, and immigrant aid funds approved by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners have helped with that.
Ajin still has some hard feelings about being detained and separated from his family for a month last year. He knows he made mistakes in the past, but he didn’t expect to be put on trial again all these years later. He said he felt part of his dignity was stripped from him.
But he said the citizenship ceremony was perfect and his family was excited.
Ajin said he took his citizenship exam in recent weeks and is surprised that everything has happened so quickly.
He thanks Jewish Family Services for helping with his citizenship application, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters’ office for support in his case, and the Ann Arbor community and others who rallied around him and his family when he was facing deportation.
“I thank everybody who helped me,” he said. “A lot of people, I don’t know them, but thanks for everybody.”