Advocates Call for the Release of a Gay Nigerian Asylum Seeker

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Advocates Call for the Release of a Gay Nigerian Asylum Seeker

Tina Vasquez

"The broader context of his story illustrates the invisibility of Black LGBTQ immigrants in detention and in the anti-deportation movement, and there is erasure of the needs of Afro Latinx communities."

Black immigrants are rarely the face of news reports about asylum seekers; their realities are often ignored by mainstream immigrant rights organizations that tend to frame immigration as a Latinx issue. Udoka Nweke, a gay Nigerian immigrant, is among those whose stories have been overlooked. But thanks to a growing movement—coming to a head today, the first day of LGBTQ Pride Month, with a press conference on his case—his story is finally garnering public attention.

Nweke has been detained in California’s deadly Adelanto Detention Center for 15 months. His layered identities make him subject to additional barriers and abuses in the detention system, outlined in a recent petition created by advocacy groups on his behalf. Held in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s field office in Santa Ana, California, the press conference is calling for the 29-year-old asylum seeker’s release.

Ola Osaze, the national organizer with the Transgender Law Center’s Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project (BLMP), was alerted to Nweke’s case earlier this year by Luis Gomez of the LGBT Center Orange County, but as a queer and trans masculine person and a formerly undocumented asylee, Osaze said he was “very familiar with context of Udoka’s case.”

“There’s been not a peep written about Udoka [before recent actions and a piece in the Los Angeles Blade], but that’s why we’re trying to make a lot of noise for him,” said Osaze, whose organization, the Transgender Law Center, is part of the coalition pushing for Nweke’s release.

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“The broader context of his story illustrates the invisibility of Black LGBTQ immigrants in detention and in the anti-deportation movement, and there is erasure of the needs of Afro Latinx communities,” Osaze said.

The number of African immigrants in the United States increased 153 percent between 2000 and 2014, with Nigeria being one of the leading countries of origin, according to the 2016 report, called The State of Black Immigrants by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), in conjunction with the NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic. Despite these increasing numbers, there is still little awareness about the circumstances faced by Black asylum seekers and they largely remain “invisible” to the U.S. public, according to Osaze.

Also, a new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that LGBTQ migrants “are being held in detention for long periods of time, in unsafe conditions, and at a far greater risk of sexual violence than the general population.” This was made all the more clear by the recent death of Roxana Hernández, a 33-year-old transgender woman from Honduras who was seeking asylum in the United States as part of the Migrant Caravan. She died in ICE custody on May 25 and was the agency’s sixth in-custody death in fiscal year 2018, which began October 1, 2017. When Hernández died, she had symptoms of pneumonia and was suffering from HIV-related complications following a five-day detention in what immigrants often call iceboxes for their frigid temperatures. 

Like with other issues, race compounds how non-Latinx immigrants experience the U.S. immigration system. Because of how the immigrant narrative has been shaped in the United States—largely focusing on Latinx immigrants—there are fewer resources for people in detention who do not speak Spanish.

“The important context here is that Nigeria’s anti-gay law, which was preceded by British colonial anti-sodomy laws and saw a new iteration in 2014 before Udoka fled, is one of the worst in the world. It makes surviving there difficult. When LGBTQ people flee this persecution and violence, they are re-traumatized and subjected to additional torture in detention, where they don’t make the same kind of connections to advocacy organizations working inside because of language barriers and other systematic issues,” Osaze said.

After a grueling, months-long journey through South and Central America, Nweke presented himself as an asylum seeker to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the San Ysidro port of entry in December 2016, and he has been detained ever since. During his 15 months in detention, Nweke has had bond denied twice and, perhaps even more catastrophically, his initial asylum request was denied. After receiving this news, Nweke attempted suicide, according to advocates. 

Following his suicide attempt, Nweke was transferred to a mental health facility for two weeks and diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Osaze said he has serious concerns about the care Nweke is receiving in detention—and for good reason. Mental health issues are exacerbated by the use of solitary confinement in detention, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC). ICE is notorious for arbitrarily wielding solitary confinement as a tool, “especially among vulnerable populations such as those with mental illness or medical disability, LGBT immigrants, and survivors of torture and domestic violence,” NIJC noted on its site. 

“Adelanto is notorious for horrible treatment, including inadequate medical care,” Osaze said. “Its very clear Udoka is traumatized, and it’s very clear that he has mental health issues that are deep. He needs a lot of care and support. There is no way for us to know if the diagnosis he received is right without additional, outside care and consultation. We don’t know if he’s being given the right medicine. He has expressed experiencing debilitating side effects [from the medication]. He told me that when he was initially prescribed medication, he resisted and was threatened with isolation and being shackled. With that kind of retaliation being threatened, he decided to take the medication.”

BLMP was recently able to connect Nweke to attorney Monica Glicken, who is the directing attorney of the immigration unit at the Public Law Center. Glicken is a member of the pro bono team working on the 29-year-old’s asylum appeal.

While Glicken did not represent Nweke at his asylum hearing in front of an immigration judge, she was able to access the transcripts from the hearing and the written decision from the judge outlining why the asylum seeker’s claim was denied. The judge stated that he did not find Nweke to be credible because there were inconsistencies in the way he answered questions, according to Glicken, and this led the judge to believe there was reason not to believe his story.

“This happens all the time, especially when a person has been unrepresented for a long time. Udoka went to several hearings by himself and only had a pro bono attorney for the last couple of hearings. For someone like Udoka, who has had traumatic events happen in his life and suffers from a severe mental illness, it is difficult to recall and communicate those traumatic events clearly. This can lead to responses that are read as inconsistent by the judge,” Glicken told Rewire.News. “This is especially true when they are relying on a translator at their hearings, as Udoka was. In reviewing the court records, it became clear to me that most, if not all, of the supposed inconsistencies were based on these issues, not on Udoka’s claim itself.”
Glicken said the impact of the translation issues Nweke experienced in court can’t be overstated.
“Immigration judges have a tough job. They see a lot of people each day and with asylum cases, they have to decide whether or not the person in front of them is telling the truth based on what is necessarily a subjective judgment. A standard judge assumes the person standing in front of them is rational and whole in assessing whether they look like they are telling the truth. It is difficult for them to take into account if the individual is suffering from trauma or having translation difficulties where inflection and meaning and information gets lost. You see all of this playing out in the decision for Udoka’s case,” Glicken said.
Before Glicken took up Nweke’s case, Nweke filed his own appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Glicken and her team have since written a brief, providing legal arguments for all the reasons why the judge’s decision to deny Nweke’s asylum claim were not correct. There is no specific time limit, but the BIA is likely to issue a decision within six months. In the meantime, Nweke remains detained.

Should their concerns be heard and Nweke is released, Osaze has worked with other advocacy organizations to create a post-release plan. The plan includes connecting Nweke with housing, an active LGBTQ African immigrant community, and culturally competent mental health services to rebuild his life.

Osaze told Rewire.News that given the deep injustice of the immigrant detention center, he is unsure how Nweke’s case will play out, but he is hopeful that one day soon, he will see Nweke out of detention receiving the care and community support he needs.

“Being a Nigerian person myself, I can say that one of the ways homophobia and transphobia plays out for us is deep shame. We carry this with us because a lot of LGBTQ folks are treated so poorly at home and in society at large. We have a lot of shame to shed,” Osaze said. “Working in immigrant rights, where you know people like you aren’t seen as a priority, can feel really isolating. This layering of issues makes it especially hard for Black LGBTQ immigrants in the detention system. It makes it harder to survive and one day thrive. But our survival as a people depends on this and with the plan we have in place, I know we can help Udoka feel empowered and shed any unnecessary shame.”