Human rights activist seized by ICE during routine immigration check-in
“Free Siham” signs and “I am Siham” chants filled the night air outside of the JFK Federal Building Immigration Court in Boston, where community members spoke about human rights activist Siham Byah, who was recently detained by US Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) during a regular check-in on Nov 7.
Byah, 40, is a single mother and outspoken political activist from Morocco living in Nahant. She has been involved in large protest movements like Occupy Boston in recent years. On Thursday, more than 100 community members accused ICE of detaining Byah because of her political speech and called on elected leaders to use their influence for her release. They spoke of her hunger strike, which began the same day she was detained.
One woman read a statement sent from Siham’s brother, Nizar Byah, which noted, “Siham loves this country. It is why we have both immigrated here. She has always practiced the First Amendment by voicing her opinion of her political views and practiced the right for assembly by attending peaceful rallies.”
Byah received a call from an ICE officer on Oct 20, asking her to come in for an appointment. DigBoston was provided a recording of the call and confirmed that the meeting was for a regular immigration check-in in which her current address, fingerprints, and work information would be taken.
Byah showed up to the Burlington ICE office on Nov 7 with her partner and her attorney, Matt Cameron. As she was detained, Cameron was told that the decision was not made locally. He said in an interview, “I was told that the decision to detain Siham without warning or opportunity to leave voluntarily came directly from DC, and was not up to the New England Field Office.”
When asked about Byah’s arrest, ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer told DigBoston that she was arrested on an outstanding final order of deportation issued by an immigration judge in 2012. “Ms. Byah has a criminal record that includes convictions for misdemeanor offenses,” he said. But Cameron told DigBoston that this statement is “a lie.” According to Byah’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) file, she has a single conviction related to motor vehicle usage.
Byah was taken into custody by authorities with the intention of deporting her back to Morocco. Byah’s 8-year-old son, Naseem, was in a Nahant elementary school in his third-grade class when she was detained. He is currently in the custody of the Department of Children and Families.
Byah has applied for multiple stays of removal from the US since her appeal to the Board of Immigration was denied in 2013, along with a motion to reopen her case. The norm became checking in once a year for multiple stays of removal.
At the time of this writing, Byah was being held at the Bristol County House of Correction, and she began a hunger strike soon after being detained. According to her partner, who did not wish to be named, she was temporarily placed in solitary confinement for refusing to eat and had to eat crackers in order to make a phone call to her attorney. He claimed that she has recently undergone weight loss surgery and was denied the right to see a doctor for dietary and medical problems while in solitary confinement. Her partner, who spoke with her on the phone, said, “Byah was given omeprazole, vomited blood [on Thursday].” ICE has not responded to this claim.
Cameron filed for an emergency hearing to stop the deportation, but is still awaiting a court date.
Byah, a real estate agent, lived in Nahant with her son and moved to the US from Morocco in 1999. She pursued a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology at Bunker Hill Community College, and as a local advocate has spoken out against US government support of dictatorships in Morocco.
As Byah recounted in a 2012 YouTube video, the Moroccan Secret Service court marshaled her for treason in 2011-2012 and reportedly threatened her for advocating for social and economic justice. Her status as a single outspoken mother has gained disapproval in Morocco, and as a result she is currently applying for political asylum within the US. Byah said in the video, “I was threatened with rape, and that they would rape my two-year-old. This is how low [the Moroccan government is] willing to stoop.”
“She is a fierce activist for human rights in Morocco and has received threats from radical Islamists there,” Byah’s partner told DigBoston. “If she goes back, they will torture her.”
Beyond her advocacy against human rights abuses in Morocco, Byah spoke out in favor of welcoming Syrian refugees and against Israeli violence in Gaza.
Cameron said that Congressman Seth Moulton and the offices of two state senators have been reaching out to DCF to get Naseem placed with a family friend. “They’re hoping it gets expedited,” he told DigBoston.
According to the Boston Herald, ICE said arrangements can be made for Byah’s son to accompany his mother to Morocco, a country he has never been to and where his family is in danger, if she is deported.
Ed note: The following statement from ICE was received after this article went to print:
ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee. Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.
ICE does not retaliate in any way against individuals participating in hunger strikes. Consistent with agency policy, if an individual is observed not to have eaten for more than 72 hours will he or she be considered on “hunger strike” and at that point become subject to the agency’s protocols for handling hunger strikes.
For those individuals, ICE will institute the hunger strike protocols, which includes close medical supervision. All detainees who are engaged in a hunger strike will continue to be offered three meals daily and provided an adequate supply of drinking water or other beverages.
Sarah is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal.