Personal Voices: Back to Africa

Human Rights

As Nigerians prepare to welcome President Bush into their capital on his whirlwind African tour this week, the United States, in contrast, remains inhospitable to many Nigerians.

My husband, for example, is being kicked out of the United States, his home of seven years.

Osita came here on a valid visa. He has a work permit, a driver's license and a social security card -- all legally issued. He has a wife, a son and a daughter -- all U.S. citizens. He pays taxes and rent. He has never committed a crime or been unemployed. And although he's Nigerian, he has never sent anyone e-mail claiming to be usurped royalty in need of a wire transfer.

The agency formerly known as INS has even approved our six-year, two-child marriage. Yet, immigration law says Osita must go. And because the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) refuses to process our paperwork, if he goes, he won't be able to come back.

These days it's easy to blame immigration troubles on terrorism fears. But, like those of many Africans, Osita's problems started long before Sept. 11, 2001, and have continued long after. Is our government's handling of people like Osita rooted in a much older American prejudice?

Osita moved to San Francisco from Tokyo in 1996 on a fiance visa and married his girlfriend, a naturalized U.S. citizen. To his surprise, she immediately spent all of his savings, and when his money ran out, she kicked him out of their apartment and withheld the INS interview notices that came in the mail, propelling him into deportation proceedings. Fearing persecution at the hands of Nigeria's then-military-dictatorship -- notorious for cruelty to Igbos like Osita -- he filed for political asylum. He and his wife divorced.

But then we met, fell in love, got married and had our first baby. Problem solved, right? Instant green card? Not quite. Under U.S. immigration law, an immigrant can't adjust his or her status from one person's fiance petition (K-1 visa), however legal, to another person's alien-spouse petition (I-130 form). So the court wants Osita to leave the country and apply for a new visa based on our marriage.

Fair enough. If only he could return.

The problem: Immigration courts and the BCIS don't work together. Despite our approved marriage, Osita is still in deportation proceedings and will be booted any time the court sees fit. Meanwhile, BCIS is not processing our documents, a glitch that will leave Osita stranded in Nigeria if he's forced to take a voluntary departure from the United States. And if he does not leave voluntarily? He'll be deported and barred from re-entering the United States for 10 years. Our kids will be teenagers by then.

BCIS is not sympathetic. At each of the semiannual, continued deportation hearings we've attended throughout our marriage, an INS/BCIS attorney has argued in favor of Osita's deportation. When we requested another continuance at last month's hearing, the lawyer actually said, "I don't see why he should get special treatment."

Osita's "special treatment": It took four years and two children for INS to grant us an I-130 interview -- an event that usually occurs within eight months of a wedding. We were sent to the Special Investigations Unit, a fear-inspiring division of INS reserved for cases in which fraud is presumed. (Osita is Nigerian, remember.) At the interview, we were approved in minutes.

We then submitted a request to have Osita's alien file sent to the U.S. Embassy in Lagos, a process that normally takes five months. If the file is waiting there when the judge orders Osita to leave the United States, he might make it back home in weeks. If it isn't, he'll be stuck in Nigeria, and our family will lose our income, our insurance and our home.

It's been 18 months, and the file has not moved. But the government cashed our check for the processing fee.

Recently an aid to our congressman, George Miller, kindly made an inquiry on our behalf. BCIS told him our request to have Osita's file transferred is inside said file, which is being held by the court and is inaccessible to BCIS. But the court is the entity both requiring Osita to leave the United States and asking BCIS to move the file. Catch 22.

Osita hasn't seen his mother, his brothers or his sisters in 13 years, since Japan gave him asylum in 1990. His sister died, and he missed the funeral. His brother got married, and he missed the wedding. His mother is now in her mid-70s in a country where the average life expectancy is 50.

Most of Osita's adult relatives, all of whom live in Nigeria, have been applying for U.S. visas for decades and have been turned down. The only exception is Osita's sister-in-law. It took her only two months to get a visa and fly to Missouri to give birth to our nephew, the only one of Osita's relatives I've met. Recently, she was offered a chance at a green card via the U.S. immigrant "diversity" program -- again, an avenue all of the other relatives have tried and failed. What makes her special? She was born in Sweden.

Karen Pojmann ( is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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