KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Even as the issue of immigration has been central to the government shutdown in Washington, a respected doctor at Kalamazoo’s Bronson Methodist Hospital who has been living in America for nearly 40 years finds himself in jail after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents took him from his home in handcuffs.
Lukasz Niec is an internal medicine doctor putting in long hours as a hospitalist for Bronson. His co-workers describe him as the model of what a physician should be.
And now, he is sitting in a jail cell in Calhoun County with no idea of when — or if — he will be free to return to his patients and his family.
“In 1979, my parents were both doctors left Poland and took two suitcases and two small children, my brother was five and I was six and they came here for a better life for their kids,” said Iwona Niec-Villaire Saturday as she sat next to her sister-in-law.
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, as Niec was enjoying a day off with his girls at his lake home in an exclusive neighborhood near Kalamazoo, 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 these 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 said 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.
Now, Niec awaits his fate in jail.
“We did go see him on Wednesday. He was shaking, in an orange T-shirt. (He was) just kind of shell-shocked,” Niec-Villaire said
His wife 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 the doctor’s wife of two years, Rachelle Burkart-Niec.
Bronson Healthcare issued the following statement Monday:
While Bronson Healthcare, like others, respects the laws and regulations concerning United States immigration, we are following the situation surrounding the detention of Dr. Lukasz Niec closely and are doing everything we can to advocate for Dr. Niec. We have been in contact with our elected representatives and we have our immigration counsel coordinating with Dr. Niec’s attorney to explore all options to secure his prompt release from detention.
There are two misdemeanor convictions from 26 years ago that have been cited by ICE to support Dr. Niec’s detention. We believe that Dr. Niec’s recent history as a contributing member of our community is far more indicative of the type of person he is than the incidents that occurred when he was a teenager.
Since 2007, Dr. Niec has been a skilled and caring physician, a valued employee and respected member of the Bronson medical staff. His detention in a county jail while awaiting deportation proceedings simply does not make sense. Given all that he has contributed in the form of exemplary patient care, and Bronson’s ongoing need for Dr. Niec’s continued service as a hospitalist, we are requesting the community’s best interest be considered and he be allowed to return to work and his family as soon as possible.
Dozens of doctors and other employees have also sent letters of support for Niec.
“He’s been, just completely the model physician that you want a physician to be,” said Dr. Hussein Akl, also a doctor in Bronson Internal Medicine. “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, who specializes in palliative medicine.
More than 25 people gathered at the home Saturday including friends and family.
“He’s just a good guy, I mean, he just is,” said Brent Richmond, a friend of Niec for 25 years, who was fighting back tears.
Marc Asch, an immigration attorney in Kalamazoo, said 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 said the government may not even have a solid case and it could likely end with Niec being able to stay in America — but that could be a process that takes months or even years.
It is also possible 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.”