Following her guilty plea to naturalization fraud and subsequent revocation of citizenship, Rasmea Odeh departed the United States last Tuesday, on a flight from Chicago's O'Hare to Amman, Jordan. Her supporters held one last rally in the airport parking garage, which was reported by both of Chicago's major newspapers, but they told very different stories about the event.
The coverage in the Chicago Tribune was straightforward. Under the headline "Palestinian Activist Deported to Jordan from Chicago," it was explained in the first paragraph that Odeh had "a decades old record of bombings in Jerusalem," continuing,
Odeh pleaded guilty in April to concealing her convictions when she applied for U.S. citizenship in Detroit in 2004. Her record would have disqualified her from entering the U.S. a decade earlier.
In 1970, Odeh was convicted of two bombings in Jerusalem, including one that killed two young men at a supermarket. She insists she was tortured into confessing by the Israeli military. She was sentenced to life in prison but was released in 1979 as part of a prisoner swap with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
This is all entirely factual. The story would have been incomplete without including Odeh's claim of torture, but it made clear that the concealed convictions would have disqualified her from entering the U.S. in any case. Given that the event was a gathering of sympathizers, it also made sense to quote the speakers: "We will liberate Palestine," said Hatem Abudayyeh, coordinator of Odeh's defense committee. "We will liberate Palestine because of the Rasmea Odehs of the world."
Some observers might take issue with the headline calling Odeh a "Palestinian Activist" rather than a convicted felon or terrorist (both of which would have been accurate), but I think it is a fair description. Odeh's life in the United States, which is most relevant to American newspaper readers, has been characterized by her activism in the Palestinian and Arab community, for which she is very well known in Chicago. She was convicted of a terrible crime, but she served her time in Israel and was released from prison in an amnesty as part of a prisoner exchange. In other words, she is an ex-convict who has led a commendable life since her release, and she has earned the right to call herself an "activist."
The Tribune story ends with a quote from the judge who accepted her guilty plea and signed the order of removal from the United States:
"Technically she was a terrorist," U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain said in 2015. "But looking at Ms. Odeh's recent history, I'm convinced she's really been involved in a lot of good works."
Although I would have written a less sympathetic story -- for example, I would have said something more about Odeh's victims -- I think that Judge Drain actually summed it up pretty well, and I understand why the reporter concluded with his words.
The article in the Chicago Sun-Times, however, abandoned objectivity in favor of advocacy journalism, beginning with the headline: "Political Activist Rasmea Odeh a Symbol of Deportation's Many Faces." This is both inaccurate and insulting to the many innocent people facing potential deportation who have never been convicted of any felonies, much less both murder and fraud. In fact, Odeh's situation is nearly unique, and she has virtually nothing in common with the "many faces" of the millions of people, including DACA Dreamers, who are currently at risk of deportation.
The Sun-Times story, which was not in the opinion section, continues in that vein, stating at the outset only that Odeh had "served time as a prisoner in Israel" while withholding the details -- that it has been a murderous bombing -- until the sixth paragraph. More significantly, the story repeatedly, and falsely, links Odeh's deportation to the unpopular Trump administration, which had almost nothing to do with it. It was only in the eighth paragraph that the Sun-Times even acknowledged Odeh's guilty plea to naturalization fraud, while then explaining it was a reaction to Trump:
Odeh is just one face of the Trump administration’s tougher stance on illegal immigration, a crackdown that has played out in high profile cases such as that of 67-year-old Berwyn grandmother Genoveva Ramirez, ordered to leave by October due to an expired visa.
This is nonsense. Odeh was indicted in 2013 during Obama's first term. She was tried and convicted in 2014, still during the Obama administration, before an Obama-appointed federal district judge. The U.S. attorney who signed both the original and superseding indictment (2016) was also an Obama appointee. It is pure spin to attribute Odeh's eventual guilty plea -- following the reversal of her conviction by a 6th Circuit panel that included two Republicans -- to changed circumstances under the Trump administration. While it is understandable that Odeh's supporters would make that claim in order to explain the embarrassment of her guilty plea, it was inaccurate, to say the least, to repeat it as fact in a news story: "Seeing the writing on the wall from the new administration’s crackdown, she entered into a plea agreement to give up the citizenship she’s held since 2004."
But the Sun-Times story is worse than that. The Trump crackdown may lead to the callous deportation of a "67-year-old Berwyn grandmother" who had overstayed her visa, but that case is totally unrelated to Odeh's -- given that the grandmother had never concealed a murder conviction or obtained citizenship by intentional fraud.
In fact, Genoveva Ramirez, who has admittedly overstayed her visa by at least a decade, was informed during the Obama administration that her case was "low priority," which led her to believe that she would be able to remain in the country. She had no criminal background and had not committed fraud against the U.S. It was indeed a change in policy under the Trump administration that led to her order of deportation. Continuing the false equivalence, however, the Sun-Times story says,
Ramirez and several other immigrants similarly facing immediate deportation have filed lawsuits against ICE, advocates announced Tuesday. But it is too late for Odeh, who has lived in the U.S. 23 years.
No, no, no. Ramirez's lawsuit could not possibly have helped Odeh, no matter when it was filed. Ramirez and her co-plaintiffs are challenging the new administrative policy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) while Odeh pled guilty to fraud in U.S. District Court. Ramirez could have won her case resoundingly -- receiving a personal apology from the president and a promise never to do it again -- with absolutely no impact on Odeh's deportation. To put it bluntly, Odeh is a twice-convicted felon; Ramirez is not. End of specious comparison.
Sympathy for Odeh is understandable. She has obviously encountered many hardships, and it will be tremendously difficult for her to re-establish her life in Jordan, at age 70, after 23 years in the U.S. I have no quarrel with the Sun-Times reporting her emotional state:
"For the past month, I haven’t been able to sleep at night, just crying all the time."
Or her tearful words at the airport:
"I got my first visa in 1988, my green card in 1994, my citizenship in 2004. In all those years, I’ve been a good citizen. I’ve helped my community,” Odeh said. “It’s why I feel angry. I’ve done nothing wrong."
But the effort to link Odeh to the broader issue of immigration and deportation is politically biased at best.
[Disclosure: I have written opeds for both the Tribune and the Sun-Times, but I have published considerably more, and more recently, in the Tribune.]