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Boys can stay for another year

Immigration officials change decision on deporting family
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Supporters of the Khandwalla family rallied in Pioneer Courthouse Square last week in support of Hanzallah (left) and Aamir Khandwalla, who were ordered to leave the country by immigration officials. A few days later, the family received word it would be granted a one-year extension on their deferred-action visa.

Aamir and Hanzallah Khandwalla and their family are safely settled into their Southwest Portland apartment this week. The brothers await treatment at Shriners Hospital for Children for complications resulting from their rare genetic disease, Desbuquois Syndrome. For a while there, it didn't look like it would be so.

As of two weeks ago, the family, which has been in Portland eight years, had been told by federal immigration officials that it had until the end of March to leave the United States. But last weekend, the family received word it would be granted a one-year extension of its deferred-action visa.

A story in the March 17 Portland Tribune and subsequent television coverage during the weekend brought attention to the family's case. Aamir, 17, and Hanzallah, 11, each stand a little over 3 feet tall and suffer a variety of skeletal and heart ills resulting from their disease, which affects by an estimated 50 people worldwide. Both boys have had multiple surgeries, and more surgeries are anticipated.

In early March, immigration authorities told the family that it would have to leave the country, despite the fact that the medical care the boys receive is unavailable in their native Kenya. Immigration officials told the Tribune that there could be no appeal of the decision.

But those officials apparently weren't taking into account the power of an organized community. Immediately following the Tribune story and the television news airings, friends and acquaintances of the Khandwallas, led by friends at a local mosque the family attends, rallied to the family's cause.

According to the boys' mother, Faiza Khandwalla, more than 1,000 people signed their names the first day a petition in support of the family was posted at Wilson High School, where Aamir is a student. Another 600 signed a similar petition at Jackson Middle School, which Hanzallah attends. Within days, close to 2,000 signatures were forwarded to Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, whose office promised to help.

A small rally was held March 24 in Pioneer Courthouse Square in support of the family staying.

Portland immigration attorney Phillip Smith, along with legal partner Nicole Nelson, worked free of charge on the family's behalf, and alerted media to the impending deportation. Smith says all the attention appears to have paid off.

'Immigration finally heard what the community was saying,' Smith says.

Immigration officials aren't revealing much about why they changed the decision. But they do admit such a reversal is rare.

'Of the 6 million decisions we make every year, very few of them are looked at again,' says Christopher Bentley, spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 'The story here is when USCIS makes a decision, we do have the ability to look at it a second and third time to make the right decision.'

Faiza Khandwalla, mother of the boys, says she is amazed at the speed with which all the local support was organized, but time was precious. The deadline for the family to leave the U.S. was March 31.

'We have a very nice community over here,' Faiza Khandwalla says.