When Rachelle Burkhart-Niec received a phone call from her husband, Lucasz Niec, saying that he had been detained by immigration authorities and was facing the possibility of deportation to Poland, she refused to believe it at first.
"Stop pranking me," she said, according to a friend familiar with their conversation.
But Niec was not joking.
Niec arrived in this country in 1979 with his parents, both physicians from Poland. A legal permanent resident since 1989, he was raised in Michigan, where he has practiced medicine since 2007. He does not speak Polish. He has visited the nation of his birth once, as a teenager, and has no acquaintances there.
His sudden arrest at his home in Texas Charter Township and detention at a nearby jail last week came as a surprise not only to Niec and his family but to friends and colleagues on the staff of Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, where Niec serves in the department of internal medicine. "We thought it was a joke," said Kwsai Al-Rahhal, a fellow doctor who has known Niec since the latter's medical school residency. Penny Rathburn, another colleague, put it more bluntly. "All of us are shocked and outraged," she said. "It's almost like a death."
Al-Rahhal and Rathburn spoke highly of Niec in both personal and professional terms. "He provides excellent patient care," said Rathburn. "He is a fierce advocate for his patients, loyal and ethical, intelligent, compassionate. He is trustworthy, honest, endearing. Friends and patients feel that. He's respected by everyone in our community."
According to a notice issued by the Department of Homeland Security, Niec has been taken into custody because he has been convicted of "crimes of moral turpitude." In January 1992, at the age of 17, he was convicted of destruction of property; in April of the same year he pled guilty to receiving stolen property valued at $100 or more. The latter offense was expunged from his record under the terms of the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, a Michigan statute meant to allow young offenders to plead guilty to certain crimes without finding themselves struggling later in life under the weight of a permanent criminal record.
Friends and colleagues are aware of these juvenile convictions. Al-Rahhal said that they do not reflect Niec's character. "He redeemed himself by getting education, by bettering himself and choosing a good path in life."
In a statement released on Tuesday, Immigration and Customs Authority shed additional light on possible reasons for Niec's arrest. "He most recently came under agency scrutiny as a result of 18 encounters with local law enforcement," ICE officials said.
Susan Reed of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center said that "encounters with law enforcement" is a phrase whose meaning can vary widely. "It could be anything," she said. Kalamazoo County District Court records show Niec involved in some 22 cases dating back to 1997 for violations including speeding tickets, failure to wear a seatbelt, failure to change his address on a driver's license, vehicular obstruction of a fire hydrant, and most recently, for failure to display proof of insurance in January 2016. Requests made to ICE for additional information concerning what triggered Niec's detention were not returned by the time of this story's publication.
Experts in immigration law have been quick to point out that offenses like Niec's dating back decades, while often overlooked by authorities, are not exempt from scrutiny. This is the case even when they have been erased from state legal registers.
Reed said that Niec's situation is not unique. "I have worked with a number of clients in very similar situations, people who have built up all kinds of equities in their lives." Reed added that changes made to immigration law during the Clinton administration expanded the number of offenses that are considered grounds for deportation. These changes applied retroactively with no established cutoff point.
But Niec might actually be an American citizen. One of his parents became a citizen while he was a minor in possession of a green card, which would have granted him citizenship automatically, albeit unbeknownst to Niec. "He's probably a citizen and just doesn't know it," said Al-Rahhal, who added that Niec's attorneys are in the process of obtaining family records that could establish a timeline for his possible naturalization.
That ICE might detain and eventually deport an American citizen is not, however, beyond the bounds of possibility. "It has happened shockingly often," said Reed. One 2011 study found that as many as 4,000 citizens may have been deported in the previous year alone.
Meanwhile, Niec's detention comes at a difficult time for an already understaffed hospital group during a taxing season for respiratory illness and influenza. The 404-bed Bronson Methodist is part of a network of hospitals, outpatient centers, clinics, and exercise facilities that together make up the largest health-care provider in southwest Michigan. The group serves the highest percentage of Medicaid patients in the state outside of Detroit. Bronson Healthcare Group also provides a significant amount — nearly $240,000 a day worth — of care that is free or heavily subsidized.
Niec frequently volunteered to take on additional shifts in order to fill staffing vacancies. "He's always willing to step up when we need help," said Lisa Shugars, a receptionist at Bronson, who described his absence as "a huge loss" for the hospital. "He's very compassionate and caring. I am completely taken aback and still can't believe he's gone."
Before his detention, Niec had recently been promoted within his department and was responsible for the difficult task of coordinating the timetable for the internal medicine staff. "We were already hurting," said his colleague Rathburn. "The hospital is at capacity. He was one of our lead physicians. He managed our schedule. It's unreal that he's in a jail cell instead of helping people at a community hospital."
Niec's detention has given rise to an additional source of anxiety for Bronson staff. "I have other partners with green cards and they're nervous," said Rathburn. "Within just our group I know of at least four. Knowing Lucasz and knowing this could happen to him, it makes you wonder. Who couldn't this happen to?"
"Being an immigrant myself, this is really weird," said Al-Rahhal. "This is really not a high priority for those who are trying to keep the country safe. But if I were not a citizen at this stage I would be very worried."
Reed, the immigration attorney, said that she expects cases like Niec's to become more common. She cited a shift from norms observed by the Obama administration to a more fluid sense of priorities for immigration enforcement under President Trump. "We are going to see more deportation cases that surprise people," she said. "The law hasn't changed but the people in charge of pressing the accelerator or the brake have changed."
At present the timeline for Niec's deportation proceedings are unknown. When he might be eligible for a bond hearing and when his case will come before an immigration judge are unclear.
Despite the unexpectedness of his arrest and uncertainty of his present situation, Niec himself has remained in "good spirits" and taken an interest in the cases of his fellow inmates, according to multiple people who have spoken with him from jail by telephone. "You'd have to know Lucasz," said Rathburn. "He's always positive. He never gets angry. He's just shocked."