Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Immigrant Punk

An interesting and somewhat troubling immigration case has recently bubbled to the surface here in Madison. Tope Awe, a Nigerian-born graduate student at the School of Pharmacy at the UW-Madison, was unexpectedly taken into custody by the Milwaukee office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement last week, and is now being held in the Dodge County Jail awaiting deportation.

According to the Capital Times:

Friends said she had gone to discuss her immigration status. Awe reportedly came to the United States with her family at age 3, and friends said she knows no one in Nigeria.

ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said Monday that Awe was an immigration fugitive with an outstanding removal order against her. Immigration fugitives typically do not have the right to a hearing before deportation, Montenegro said.

The 22-year-old student's father, Samuel Awe, lost an appeal for political asylum in 2003. That decision in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Samuel Awe's removal from his 1993-1995 stint as Nigeria's agriculture secretary, reportedly for not paying bribes to supervisors, and accusations that the frequent resident of the United States had ties to the CIA did not rise to the level of persecution.

Samuel Awe, his wife and three children were originally notified in 1998 that they had overstayed their visas, according to court documents. In denying Awe's appeal, the court granted the family voluntary departure to Nigeria.

Tope Awe was in custody Monday at the Dodge County Jail, which contracts with ICE. Also in custody was her brother, Oluwagbenga Awe, also seized on Thursday. He is a recent graduate of UW-Stevens Point and, according to family and friends, is married with a young child.

Samuel Awe and his wife, Julianah, live in the Milwaukee area where he is receiving medical treatment, according to published reports.
It's difficult to get a firm handle on the situation, as the details of the Awe's visa status are still murky. The family claims that the father's B-1/B-2 visa, for business and medical purposes, allows them to stay here until his treatment is finished. It is unclear, however, if 1) the visa applies to just Sam or to the whole family and 2) the visa is good until the completion of treatment. Sam Awe has kidney disease and has been undergoing treatment for it in Milwaukee for a number of years. I can't imagine he'd be able to get the same level of care if sent back to Nigeria.

Perhaps more confusing is Tope's student status. Having lived in Wisconsin for several years prior to enrolling both as an undergraduate at UW-Milwaukee and as a graduate student at UW-Madison, state residency was apparently not a problem to prove. But if the Awe's were notified in '98 that they were supposed to leave the country, how did they manage to stay on (and, for the children, attend state schools) for another 10 years? How did this never come up during enrollment?

Personally, I believe that anyone who has proven a commitment to being a contributing and law-abiding member of society should be granted permanent resident status. The Awe's seem to have done just that, but were instead rewarded with a denial of either an extension to their stay or a path to citizenship. Tope appears to have been an exemplary student, highly involved in campus life and advocacy while pursuing her studies. That she was asked to come in for a meeting to "regularize her residency status," voluntarily complied, and then simply arrested seems sketchy at best.

Still, all of the facts remain to be seen, and for better or for worse, the law is the law. So the trouble may be less that the law was enforced, and more that the law is broken.

This family clearly wanted to stay in the United States, and were, from what I've read, doing everything they could to do so legally. They paid taxes, registered cars, contributed to their communities, and plead their case all the way up to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals--only to meet with a door slammed in their faces. I can't blame them for fighting tooth and nail to stay here. Unfortunately, with the way the laws work now, they may have little to no recourse in this situation.

It is heartening to know that a significant number of Tope's fellow students and teachers are going to bat for her, pushing for her to be allowed to stay in the country at least until she graduates in 2009. An online petition has already garnered hundreds of responses, a number of UW officials are advocating for her, and state representatives have at least been contacted about the case.

This all just serves as yet another reminder of how complicated and dysfunctional our current immigration laws are. We really do need to find a way to get past all of the jingoism and knee-jerk reactions to the subject, and find a way to meaningfully debate and rework our policies. Policies that should have nothing to do with xenophobia and "dey took er jerbs!" style fear. We are, after all, a nation founded by immigrants (I'm talking about the nation founded long after the first inhabitants arrived here--which is a whole other story, of course). Ignoring that heritage, willfully or not, is hypocritical at best, dangerous at worst.


Forward Our Motto said...

What a waste of gov't resources, not to mention the human costs...It's a damn shame.

John A said...

These cases are always the more interesting immigration studies (which I guess is why they make the news).

There's a strong resistance among a lot of folks to break the immigrant issue down into "immigrants we want to encourage" and "immigrants we'd prefer stayed home". Awe seems to fall pretty squarely into the former category, and it seems confusing that we'd be going after her rather than folks trying to stay under the radar.

I'm with you in agreeing that the law is the law. But as with a lot of law enforcement, it's frustrating to see authories spending their time on this when there are probably some better targets to focus on.

Anonymous said...

This is inhumane. Why on earth would ICE suggest that a 70 year old man with Kidney disease move to Nigeria. And why would Tope and Gbenga return to Nigeria at all? They came here as babies. They didn't know they had deportation orders against them, the parents didn't tell them. That is why they kept living normal lives. Gbenga is married to a US citezin and has a 16 month old little boy. Why on earth would the US government find it necessary to send a 21 year old college student that is an american citezin and her baby to Nigeria where there are diseases, no vaccinations, no electricity all the time, and Gbenga doesn't even know the language there. We are talking about them returning to that Yuroba tribe where they circumsise their wives before marriage here. If Tope returns to Nigeria she would have to deal with that torture as well. We need something done for these people. We need a private bill passed to keep them here. This case is beyond extreme, and anyone that doesn't understand that is pathetic, we are talking life and death here.

The Lost Albatross