ELDORA — Behind soundproof glass and over a black phone pressed to his ear, Soliman Altamimi said he’s ready to go home.
The 26-year-old Saudi Arabia national spent the last two years improving his English at the University of Iowa. He planned to pursue graduate school in another state until he was arrested April 28.
Authorities say Altamimi threatened to bring a gun to the Iowa Intensive English Program’s final ceremony after being told he couldn’t give a speech there. A police report and university officials say it was the second time he made such a threat, although he denies the allegations.
His case underscores the challenges officials face in balancing public safety with individual rights, while at the same time sheds light on a new vigor local lawyers and advocates say they see in how Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents do their jobs.
“There’s always been a very proactive intentionality on ICE’s part to work within jails to find people,” said Erica Johnson, executive director of American Friends Service Committee in Iowa. “But what we’re seeing is an increase in activity inside and outside jails — all over the place.”
Iowa City immigration lawyers tell The Gazette they’ve seen an uptick in international students seeking representation or advice involving visa and immigration issues. Dan Vondra, an immigration lawyer with Cole & Vondra, notes, “We’ve been ridiculously busy since February” — the month after Donald Trump took office.
“Part of that could just be more education and more awareness that these charges could cause them problems,” Vondra said.
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The Trump administration has ordered an illegal immigrant crackdown, instigating raids for criminals that also have netted some without criminal records. The president has broadened the scope of who immigration authorities can target to include those with minor offenses or no convictions.
Vondra and others say they have seen those new directives play out in how, when, where and with what frequency ICE picks up individuals and detains them.
ICE officials in Cedar Rapids directed questions to a regional spokesman in Minnesota. That person did not respond to questions of whether the agency has changed its practices.
“I think the enforcement is definitely on the uptick right now,” Vondra said. “ICE is taking more extreme positions pretty much at every point in the case — making it harder to get bond, making it harder to get out of jail, trying to keep more people detained, deporting and going after people who they previously wouldn’t have.”
FROM CLASS TO JAIL
Altamimi said he feels like an example.
He was wrapping up two years in the Iowa Intensive English Program when he was arrested April 28 — the same day as his program’s final ceremony. Four days later, he received notice from the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia that “the U.S. visa which you had been issued is no longer valid.”
One week later, on May 9, after Altamimi’s first court appearance but before he could enter a plea, attorney Chris Foster officially began his representation of Altamimi by posting bail just after 11 a.m., according to court records and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.
Altamimi was released at noon. He had planned to immediately meet with Foster at his offices.
But ICE agents intercepted him, taking him first to Linn County Jail and eventually to the Hardin County Correctional Center in Eldora, where he was denied bail by an immigration judge, according to Foster.
Before this year, according to Foster and other lawyers and advocates, judges seldom declined to set bail.
“To be honest, I can’t remember a client of mine picked up by ICE and held without bond,” Foster said. “But now, it’s every single client I’ve had. And other lawyers say the same thing.”
Vondra said that in many cases, a person doesn’t get much opportunity to contest his or her case or the grounds for deportation because of that detention.
Even without a conviction, immigration judges have discretion to hold suspects for months, according to Vondra.
“And who’s going to stick around and sit in jail for six months while they contest these things?” he said.
Not Altamimi, who has agreed to go back to Saudi Arabia and now is awaiting deportation.
“It’s pretty clear to me this is exactly what they are doing,” Foster said. “Having people sit in detention as long as possible until they agree to removal or don’t fight it and agree to go.”
In Altamimi’s case, it remains unclear who worked with ICE — if anyone — to coordinate the former UI student’s immediate detention.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office in March — as immigration raids made news nationally — said in a statement it “will not honor voluntary detainer requests nor will the sheriff’s office assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — ICE — in immigration enforcement raids.”
The statement, however, does not “preclude county offices in assisting or participating in lawful warrants and criminal investigations.”
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Johnson County sheriff’s Maj. Steve Dolezal confirmed ICE placed a voluntary detainer request on Altamimi.
“We do not hold inmates on this type of a detainer, but do share limited information with ICE,” Dolezal said in an email, noting “We have no record of contacting ICE” in this case.
He pointed to a number of ways ICE might have known about Altamimi’s release, including the possibility someone tipped off UI police or ICE agents. Investigators could have checked online records, too.
“A jail sergeant does have a recollection that she was contacted by ICE to let her know that they were coming,” Dolezal said. “The control center operator working during his release recalls ICE calling on Altamimi’s status multiple times that morning prior to his release.”
CAMPUS HAD TO ACT
Although Altamimi has not had a chance to defend himself in court and said he feels his rights were violated, campus safety experts point to the paramount priority universities must place in keeping their communities safe.
Beyond the devastation failure can cause, “If they underreact to a situation or don’t handle it properly and then there’s a shooting or bombing or whatever type of attack, they’ll be litigated most typically in the courts,” said Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit campus safety center based in Georgia.
Having been involved in the country’s early threat assessment efforts and steeped in methods of preventing campus attacks, Dorn stressed the need to follow threat assessment processes that have “literally been written in blood when we’ve had failures.”
By employing law enforcement, mental health experts and campus administrators in an assessment process, Dorn said universities can strike a balance “between throwing everybody out of school and putting them in jail just because they say certain words, and underreacting and the next thing you know we have a catastrophic event on our hands.”
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UI officials have stood by their process in Altamimi’s case, which involves multiple witnesses, administrators, health care providers and law officers.
That bodes well for their actions, Dorn said.
“I have never seen a case where someone was railroaded and booted out of the school system or university when that process was followed and there wasn’t a reasonable conclusion,” he said.