The American Who Wasn’t

Fifty-five thousand cars drive along Highway 19 in West Florida every day. Some of them stop at Sevana’s Car Wash, where $7.99 gets them a basic exterior wash. Some opt for the $25.99 ultimate treatment, which includes spar wax, tire armoring, and a towel dry. Sevana’s is busy most days, except when it rains. And in Florida, when it rains, it pours.

“The price is $25.99, ma’am,” says Michael Hanna, chuckling. The customer pouts, hoping for a discount. Michael can’t be sweet talked. “Keep the change,” she says, handing him $26.

Fifteen years ago, Hanna opened the business with his brother Jamy, not knowing that he would be spending seven of those years behind bars facing deportation to a place he’s never seen – the most peaceless county on earth, Syria.

After two arrests for trafficking counterfeit goods into the United States, Immigration and Customs Enforcement thought it time for him to leave the country for good. Federal law mandates that any non-citizen in the United States who has committed a felony more than once is eligible for deportation, despite any need for asylum. Most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union was involved in a battle between ICE and Iraqi immigrants, many of them criminals, who were being rounded up for deportation to their war-torn country. The Trump administration continues to push for their removal despite the dangers they face there.

Like many minorities in the Middle East, the Hanna family has known persecution on both sides. Sevana Hanna lost her grandparents to the Armenian genocide, when an estimated one million Christian Armenians were killed.

Hanna’s Syrian-born father, Yakoub Hanna is a member of the Syriac Orthodox Church, a religious minority that traces its roots to the ancient Assyrians. His family were also targeted by the Ottomans at the same time as their Armenian neighbors. The couple found peace in Lebanon, for a short time, and started a family.

In 1985, the Hannas, then a family of five, were granted asylum by the United States of America from Lebanon, which was suffering the aftermath of a deadly war between Israel, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hezbollah. With few expectations they made their way to New Jersey as citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic. Michael Hanna was four years old.

A 10th grade dropout, Hanna never enjoyed school and viewed himself the troublemaker of his family, though he remained popular among his peers. “Every senior wanted to go with me to the prom,” Hanna said. His father gave him an ultimatum – do better in school or help support the family.

He worked at Boston Market, Dunkin Donuts and eventually in retail in New York City. Hanna even owned a recording studio where Busta Rhymes recorded music. Always looking for ways to make an extra buck, Michael later entered the billion-dollar counterfeit goods industry selling $3,000 Chanel bags for $100 on the street.

A billion-dollar global industry, counterfeit handbags and wallets accounted for 10 percent of all intellctual property seized by the Department of Homeland Security in 2017. Beginning in the eighties, New York City, specifically Chinatown became lined with picnic blankets under sometimes excellent knockoffs of luxury brands, including Chanel, Prada, Gucci and more. Hanna’s accessory of choice was ripped off Coach bags, which he sold on the infamous Canal Street among his unofficial colleagues in downtown Manhattan.

In September of 2002, a few years prior to Mayor Bloomberg’s crackdown on the industry, both Hanna and his father were arrested in broad daylight for trafficking and selling fake Coach bags. The New York Southern District Court sentenced him to two years of probation for the offense. His father was put under house arrest, though Michael claims he wasn’t really involved.

In the meantime, Hanna took steps to gain American citizenship only to be sent home each time due to lack of paperwork and technicalities. At that point, Hanna did not think anything of it – he had no plans to leave the country and felt safe enough with a green card. The decision not to return to the immigration office would later change the course of Hanna’s life, although he didn’t know it at the time.

Nearly seven years after his first trafficking arrest, law enforcement learned that Hanna was attempting to import more counterfeit goods. Shortly after, he was contacted by undercover agents who began an elaborate 9-month operation to target traffickers who imported goods from China in shipping containers, then bribed officials to release those containers from customs inspection at Newark Port in New Jersey.

During the course of the operation, Hanna unknowingly gave an undercover agent posing as a customs agent $765,000 in bribes on behalf of unidentified co-conspirators to release shipping containers from customs containing over one million dollars’-worth of counterfeit luxury handbags and sneakers. In other words, while the cash was not Hanna’s, he was instrumental in the release of the items from customs by facilitating bribes, a felony offense.

The bribes often came in interesting packaging and were given to the agent in parking lots or restaurants. In one instance, an agent recalls that Hanna brought a red Remy Martin cognac gift box to a New Jersey diner that contained $20,000 cash rather than cognac.

In March 2009, two officers knocked on the door of Hanna’s New York office – he was caught a second time. “I knew I wasn’t in the business of hurting people, so I didn’t think that selling pocketbooks was a big thing,” Hanna said. He was taken into custody and questioned.

Though law enforcement expected him to cooperate, Hanna would not share the names of his co-conspirators, the individuals who arranged the shipments and funded the bribes. “It was a collective of things, it’s the way it was at that time,” says Hanna on why he wouldn’t give up names. He doesn’t waste time with regrets. “I’m not one of those people who thinks, woulda, coulda, shoulda. What happened happened and I just gotta deal with it now,” and he’s not sure he would have done things differently if he could have, although he admits he wouldn’t have suffered as much. “If I had cooperated,” he says, “it would have been a slap on the wrist.”

In 2010, he accepted a plea bargain – the fraud and bribery charges would be dropped in exchange for a guilty plea for conspiracy to traffick in counterfeit goods, for which he received a five-year prison sentence.

Online, the entrance of the D. Ray James Correctional Facility looks like that of an airport hotel but surrounded by barbed wire. Manicured lawns precede the sprawling complex, which houses up to 2,067 men. Originally a Georgia State prison, it was contracted to the GEO Group, a private prison corporation in 2010, expanded and its inmates replaced with immigration detainees, which includes ICE detainees and non-citizens who were serving time. Its inmates comprise nearly half the population of Folkston, Georgia, a small, green town near the border with northern Florida.

Inside, Hanna obtained his GED. He performed so well on the exam that he was asked to teach writing skills to other inmates who were pursuing GEDs. Other than that, all he looked forward to were Sunday visits from his family. Every week, his parents made the eight-hour round trip to the prison more than 200 miles away. Two-hundred and forty visits represented the end of his sentence, but as the end drew nearer, he told his parents not to bother with the long drive, he’d be out soon anyway.

With just four months left until his release, Hanna received devastating news: after completion of his sentence, he was to be transferred to Stewart Detention Center, a facility where immigrants await deportation, and where he would spend over two more years in detention.

In 1988, Congress enacted the term, “aggravated felony,” to describe only the most serious crimes committed by non-US citizens. Originally, it included murder, drug and weapon trafficking. Today, the umbrella is much larger, and Michael’s crimes fell right underneath it. According to the American Immigration Council, noncitizens who have been convicted of an aggravated felony lose any privelege of protection from deportation, including asylum.

“The last two years were worse than the first five years,” says Hanna. In immigration prison, there is no release date. Hanna, then impervious to what was in front of him, stayed waiting for a guard to ask him to collect his belongings and leave. Though the deportation officers treated him kindly and with dignity, he spent the last five years believing he would have been home by then. The Sunday visits did not continue, either. “I asked my parents not to visit me. We could only see each other behind a glass wall and talk through phones that didn’t work.”

Since 2011, Syria has been battling itself in a bloody civil war which sparked a humanitarian crisis. About5.6 million Syrians have fled as refugees, with millions more displaced within the country. Over 20,000 of them have been resettled in the United States. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security designated a temporary protected status program (TPS) for Syria, allowing refugees with 18-month permits to live and work in the States. Nearly 7,000 Syrians are now living in the US under TPS. Since the war, deportations to Syria have become few, with only 11 people deported there since 2016.

After ISIS gained influence in the region, the group began targeting Christians who had family abroad and holding them for ransom, presuming that their relatives had money to spare. Knowing he could never be safe there, Hanna was granted a deferral of removal after his first six months in lockup, which spurred a game of cat and mouse with prosecutors. They appealed the court’s decision, further delaying Hanna’s release. The appellate board also found in favor of Hanna.

He then appeared for another hearing to determine his eligibility for a bond release, which was denied by the judge. The court scheduled a future hearing that took place seven months later. Six months after that, Hanna was again denied a bond hearing.

Hanna took his case up to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Prosecutors brought into question the validity of Hanna’s Christian faith. The Hanna family’s priest from the St. Anathasius Syriac Orthodox Church testified on Hanna’s behalf, citing his family’s involvement in the church. Hanna was also prepared with expert witnesses to testify to the situation in Syria and the likelihood that Hanna would face grave danger.

“We 100% thought it was likely he would be sent there,” Hanna’s sister, Zena said. “We were fighting against someone who had no clue about the ethnic or religious diversities, let alone the state of Christian minorities in Syria at the time.”

Almost two years into his detention at Stewart, a judge granted Hanna a deferral of removal, meaning his deportation would be delayed until he is no longer likely to face torture in Syria. The Department of Homeland Security appealed.

According to Kathleen Hoyos, a Georgia immigration attorney, the state is well known for its high deportation rates. Georgia has the third highest rate of deportation at 92.3 percent, and Stewart Detention Center is especially notorious at 84 percent of its detainees leaving the center because they have been deported. Nationally, 56.3 percent of people leaving ICE detention did so because they were deported.

In his 29th month of detention at Stewart, a district judge found that prosecutors were violating due process by not granting Hanna a bond hearing since he was a detainee “whose removal proceedings ha[d] become unreasonably prolonged.” According to Zena Hanna, after the family filed several complaints against the prosecutor for denying them habeas relief, a new prosecutor appeared in the court room, a woman who did not appeal the judge’s decision. “We couldn’t believe it. We walked down the hall crying,” Hanna said.

Less than a week later, Michael Hanna was granted supervised release.

On January 30, 2018, after 899 days in ICE custody, he packed his belongings and left the Stewart Detention Center for home. The next morning, he woke up at 7:00 and made his way to Sevana’s Car Wash. It didn’t rain and Hanna got busy washing the cars passing by on Highway 19.