“Welcome To Adelanto,” reads the sign that greets visitors who reach Adelanto, California, “The City With Unlimited Possibilities.”
But anyone who has had the misfortune of being held in or having visited the city’s most famous business — an immigrant detention facility — will tell you life’s possibilities are very limited: the detention center is no different from prison.
Adelanto Detention Center, two hours northeast of Los Angeles, is privately owned. Detainees say they receive minimal, substandard medical care and conditions are so poor there were multiple hunger strikes staged there last year. A Honduran asylum seeker told the Los Angeles Times in August 2017 that everyone has, at some point or another, considered suicide.
It is in this Adelanto facility that a 29-year-old gay Nigerian man named Udoka Nweke has been detained since December 2016. After he was attacked by an anti-gay mob, Nweke fled his native country and made an arduous, traumatic trek through South and Central America before reaching the United States via the San Ysidro port of entry, where he surrendered himself.
In Adelanto, after Nweke’s plea for asylum was denied, he attempted suicide. Psychologists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia and depression. And now activists, including Ola Osaze, national organizer of the Black LGBTQ Migrant Project (BLMP) have petitioned for Nweke’s release on parole so he can access lifesaving medical treatments. Otherwise, they fear Nweke’s condition will worsen.
“Seeing him there in the orange jumpsuit,” Osaze told the Los Angeles Blade by phone on May 17, “was a staggering reality for me.” He explained Nweke has been detained for fifteen months as a result of actions that he took only in order to survive. “All he’s seen of the United States is a jail cell, a detention facility.”
Osaze is Nigerian, transgender, and queer and won his asylum case. Two heavily armed security officers closely monitored the first in-person meeting between Osaze and Nweke and Osaze was not allowed to leave his phone number on a Post-It note.
“It was just such high surveillance and such a terrible atmosphere,” Osaze said. Staff at Adelanto threatened to place Nweke in solitary confinement. “Because of his condition and because of the conditions in there, the threats have included ‘we will put you in this other ward,’ or ‘we will bind you; we will put you in shackles.’”
As difficult as his detention in Adelanto must be, especially in light of his deteriorating mental health, Nweke also lives in constant fear of what will happen to him if he is deported to Nigeria. “When a man tries to hang himself after his asylum is denied,” Nweke’s attorney Monica Glicken told the Blade, “I think that shows the level of fear he has about returning to his home country.”
A program of the Transgender Law Center (TLC), BLMP was launched in December and is led by a committee of 12 black trans and queer migrants. The organization provides a variety of services that include community events, legal support, and regional organizing networks — all part of efforts to reduce isolation, build leadership, and protect black LGBTQ migrants who, Osaze said, face even tougher challenges in the current political climate.
Nweke was introduced to Osaze through Luis Gomez, the immigration specialist at the LGBT Center of Orange County. Through Osaze and BLMP, he was introduced Glicken, directing attorney at the Public Law Center’s Immigration Unit. It took a long time to connect Nweke with an attorney, Osaze said, because demand is so high and there are so many applicants who have strong asylum cases.
Glicken did not represent Nweke in his first plea for asylum, but she said the judge ruled Nweke’s testimony contained internal contradictions and inconsistencies, rendering him ineligible. Both she and another attorney who is working on his case, believe many of these can be attributed to errors in translation that made it difficult for Nweke to understand the questions asked of him.
Furthermore, Glicken said, it is well documented that trauma survivors are often unable to accurately remember details from the traumatic experiences they lived through. Provided his mental health diagnoses, Glicken said Nweke’s competence to give testimony should be taken into account in the appeal of his asylum decision, which she has filed.
For decades, Glicken said, asylum seekers would customarily be released from detention facilities on parole after they successfully demonstrated “credible fear” about returning to their native countries. Credible fear interviews are administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, who have broad discretion in nearly every step of the process–and who in the past would usually recommend detainees be released on parole, provided they didn’t have criminal backgrounds. Glicken explained that, from what she has seen, this has changed under the Trump Administration.
Nweke could easily have been granted parole at this early stage, before a judge heard his initial asylum plea. Osaze explained Nweke had a bond hearing, which was held after his suicide attempt and psychological diagnoses, but this was also denied. And just a couple of weeks ago, another parole request was denied.
“Udoka is very unhappy in there,” Osaze said. “He wants to get out. He wants treatment. He needs help. He wants the world to know what’s happening to him. And he’s also like, ‘I’m not going to survive in here.’”
Glicken and Osaze agree the best hope for Nweke may be the possibility that public pressure and media attention could compel ICE to grant him parole. Nweke’s asylum appeal may take a long time, Osaze said, and the outcome of that case is far from certain but could be positively affected “if we organize and make a lot of noise.”
For several reasons, many immigrants and would-be asylum seekers will never reach the stage of the process in which Nweke’s case is now positioned. Glicken explained that she has talked to clients who were detained at the border and processed as though they never asked for asylum. Instead of initiating the process that would entitle eligible immigrants to interviews after they are detained in detention facilities, she said, “there’s a pattern of practice of Border Patrol Agents woefully mishandling cases of asylum seekers, who are often processed as though they had just said ‘I’m here for work.’”
Many other asylum seekers are not armed with networks of activists, community organizers, and attorneys who can offer them support and help them plead their cases. “Once you are put in a detention center,” Glicken said, “it’s extremely difficult for you to find an attorney. This leaves many asylum seekers representing themselves. And I have not seen judges bending over backwards to help them articulate their claims.”
Adding to these challenges is the fact that asylum cases are very difficult to argue.
“Re-telling and documenting your story is such an intense process,” said Osaze, who himself applied for and won asylum with the aid of an attorney. “You really need someone who can help you through that. Especially LGBTQ migrants seeking asylum–they really need help working through that trauma. I mean, can you imagine [living through] mob violence?”
Even if LGBTQ asylum seekers are processed correctly and have legal representation, Glicken said, it’s not easy for their attorneys to furbish evidence that their clients inhabit the gender identities and sexual orientations they have claimed. In many countries, LGBTQ people must live in the closet to survive. Many will even start families with opposite-sex partners. These factors make it harder for attorneys to provide the burden of proof required to win asylum cases.
Meanwhile, Osaze explained he thinks officials in the Trump Administration have sought to downplay the realities faced by LGBTQ people who live in, especially, African countries that have and enforce homophobic laws. Even where there is strong evidence of violence against members of these communities, he said, asylum cases are rejected and applicants held in holding patterns because there is an effort to minimize the risks that would result from deportation.
Osaze feels ICE is trying to encourage Nweke to give up and self-deport. “The situation is urgent,” he said. “Just imagine what it would be like if he was deported back to a situation in which his life would be in danger.”
In addition to BLMP, the Transgender Law Center and LGBT Center of Orange County have submitted letters asking for Nweke’s parole. They hope he will be able to access lifesaving treatments before his health further deteriorates.
BLMP is holding a press conference and rally on June 1 at 10 a.m. at ICE Santa Ana office located at 34 Civic Center Plaza in Santa Ana.