Feds refuse to drop charges against student
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
BRADENTON -- Abdullah Hatahet will live another week in limbo.
Government attorneys on Tuesday refused to drop charges against the 22-year-old University of South Florida student who was a day late last month in registering with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Hatahet, who lives in Tampa with his aunt and uncle, can't pursue a master's degree at USF. He can't work. And he may be deported to Syria, his place of birth.
The immigration judge said his hands are tied. But he gave Hatahet until Jan. 24 to work out a solution with INS. By day's end, INS officials in Tampa said they will take another look at his case this week.
The court hearing bewildered a frustrated Hatahet, who missed a deadline to report to the INS. He stayed up all night to finish a class project instead and reported to the INS on Dec. 17, a day late. He was then arrested and spent four days in jail.
"I just want it to be over with so I can see what I can do," Hatahet said before the hearing. "If they don't reinstate me, I can't do anything."
His attorney, John Ovink, showed the judge letters from USF, where Hatahet obtained a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in December. Hatahet never violated his valid student visa and deserves to get his student status back, Ovink said.
"But you admit he didn't register on Dec. 16?" Judge R.K. McHugh asked.
"Yes," Ovink said.
Hatahet sat quietly, dressed in a dark blue suit, mustard shirt and blue and tan tie. He nervously stroked his shadow of a beard and squeezed his lips.
"I don't have the authority to reinstate (his student status)," McHugh said. "There seems to me to be little relief available."
Ovink asked if the government would drop the case.
"No, judge, we're prepared to go forward," said government attorney James Grim.
The judge then suggested that Ovink talk to INS officials and ask them to reconsider. INS officials in Tampa said later Tuesday they will take another look at his case.
If INS won't restore Hatahet's student status, Ovink will ask the judge on Jan. 24 to allow Hatahet to leave the country voluntarily. If so, Hatahet must return to his place of birth, Syria. After voluntarily leaving, he will be allowed to reapply for a student visa.
But Hatahet's parents live in Saudi Arabia, where he grew up. The application process in Syria could take a few months to a year, Hatahet said. He could stay in that country with relatives.
Hatahet tried to be optimistic, but his frustration seeped through.
"We're just going around in circles; that's what it feels like in court," he said.
Hatahet chose to work on his school project rather than report to the INS on Dec. 16, the same day that men ages 16 and older on temporary visas from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Sudan had to register with the INS under new guidelines. The new rules include two other deadlines that will affect men from 15 countries, most in the Middle East and North Africa.
"It happened; I can't do anything to change anything," Hatahet said. "But the penalty or consequences could have been less than what I had to go through."
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