KALAMAZOO, MI (WOOD) – A respected doctor who has been living in America for nearly 40 years found himself in jail after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents took him from his Michigan home in handcuffs last week.
Lukasz Niec, 43, is an internal medicine doctor who puts in long hours as a hospitalist for Kalamazoo’s Bronson Methodist Hospital. His co-workers describe him as the model of what a physician should be.
According to the Associated Press, he is a legal U.S. resident who has two misdemeanor convictions from high school and an impaired driving conviction from 2008 that was later dismissed.
Now, he is sitting in a jail cell in Calhoun County and has no idea when, or if, he will be free to return to his patients and his family.
“In 1979, my parents were both doctors who left Poland and took two suitcases and two small children,” said his sister, Iwona Niec-Villaire. “My brother was five and I was six and they came here for a better life for their kids.”
Now, the siblings are in their mid-40s. She is an attorney, he is a doctor — they have been in America for four decades on a permanent green card.
“He doesn’t even speak Polish,” Niec-Villaire said.
On Tuesday, Niec was enjoying a day off with his daughters at his home on the lake in an exclusive neighborhood, when three ICE officers came to his home, told him he was being taken into custody and took him to jail.
“The question I get asked all the time is ‘Why do you think this happened?’ I just really don’t know,” said Niec-Villaire.
ICE will not comment on the case and has held no hearings. A bond hearing may not come until February and it is unlikely it will be granted, according to immigration law experts.
“Until this gets heard, which could be up to six months, he could be stuck in a prison cell and not helping and being with his family,” said Niec-Villaire.
The only spot on Niec’s record is two misdemeanor convictions when he was 17 — one for destruction of property less than $100 and receiving and concealing stolen goods. He pleaded to the charges more than 25 years ago under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act that allows young first offenders to avoid a criminal record if they never offend again.
But ICE, a federal agency, does not honor that state plea agreement — something Niec did not know when he took the plea, according to family.
“These misdemeanors were just an adolescent making mistakes and learning from them,” Niec-Villaire said.
She says she and her brother are as American as anyone can be.
“He cannot go back to Poland, a country he doesn’t know, he has no family at. Both our parents passed away in the United States, he doesn’t know anyone, he wouldn’t know where to go,” Niec-Villaire said.
Niec is now awaiting his fate in jail.
“We did go see him on Wednesday. He was shaking, in an orange T-shirt, just kind of shell-shocked,” Niec-Villaire said
His wife of two years says their two daughters need their dad.
“He’s an excellent physician, he’s loving, he’s caring, he’s an honorable husband and he’s always helping others,” said Rachelle Burkart-Niec.
Bronson’s administration would not comment on the case, but dozens of doctors and other employees are sending letters of support.
“He’s been just completely the model physician that you want a physician to be,” said Dr. Hussein Akl. “The only danger I can see him on is when he’s swinging his golf swing.”
Others who worked with Niec say they are dumbfounded and outraged.
“He’s exactly the kind of person our immigration policies should be encouraging to prosper here. He’s been here for 40 years, this is a ridiculous situation,” said Dr. Michael Raphelson.
More than 25 people gathered at the home Saturday including friends and family.
“He’s just a good guy, I mean, he just is,” his friend Brent Richmond said as he fought back tears.
Marc Asch, an immigration attorney in Kalamazoo, says in the last year ICE has broadened its scope meaning that cases the agency would not have gone after previously are now fair game.
“These days there’s less discretion being exercised in who they go after. They’re being more aggressive, generally speaking,” Asch said.
Asch says the government may not even have a solid case and it could end with Niec being able to stay in America – but that could be a process that takes months or even years.
It’s also possible, he said, that ICE is targeting affluent immigrants of European descent to avoid the appearance of racial profiling. But those who love Niec are not interested in becoming examples.
“He’s the person I call whenever anything goes wrong or right and now I can’t do that and it’s breaking me up,” said Niec-Villaire. “This is a man that is needed in the community, not detained in Calhoun County Jail.”