The Washington Post among others has picked up the story of Syed Ahmed Jamal, a chemistry instructor from Bangladesh who was arrested at his Lawrence home on January 24.

Like the longer Kansas City Star article that triggered it, the AP article run in the Post is altogether sympathetic to the 55-year-old Jamal. He has lived in the United States for 30 year without problems. He has a family. He was walking his seventh-grade daughter to school when arrested. `

There is, to be sure, a humanitarian case to be made on Jamal’s behalf. What neither the Post nor the Star article explores, however, is how Jamal came to be in the country illegally, what he has had to do stay employed, and how much the government has already spent tending to the chemistry prof’s presumably illegal status.

Just how many sob stories can the media tell and still avoid the larger issues.

The Star article is particularly long on the lachrymose and short on the legal. It opens, “His family says they couldn’t even tell him goodbye,” a detail contradicted in the next sentence with the admission that his wife and children were with him when he was arrested.

The article quickly moves to Jamal’s Facebook page where the reader hears from Jamal’s 14-year-old son Taseen, “My little brother cries every night, my sister can’t focus in school, and I cannot sleep at night…” This may all be true, but the reader still has no idea why Jamal was arrested.

In the tenth paragraph, the Star shares the fact that an immigration judge put Jamal on “voluntary departure” notice seven years ago “as his visa status had become invalid.” At that time he was granted a “supervised stay,” which had to be renewed annually. Jamal is apparently one of 2.5 million such aliens with this status. Writes the Star’s Rick Montgomery reassuringly, “almost 80 percent have no criminal record.” In the real world, this means that there are more than 500,000 aliens at large with criminal records.

Jamal is currently in custody in Missouri “pending his removal to Bangladesh.” Immigration officials told the Star that his arrest came four years after the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed Jamal’s appeal of a “removal order.” In other words, his arrest has been pending for four years.

As deportations pick up, the media will inundate its readers with cases like these, many of them legitimately heart tugging. They have at least 2.5 million such stories to choose from. The media do their audiences a major disservice, however, if they fail to tell the story of how a chemistry lecturer at a local university could run so deeply afoul of the law for so long.

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