A group of representatives from human, civil, immigration, and LGBTQ rights organizations gathered this morning at the steps of Santa Ana’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office for a press conference and rally to support a gay Nigerian asylum seeker, Udoka Nweke, who since 2016 has been caged in the Adelanto immigrant detention facility about two hour’s drive north.
Nweke fled his native country because he was a victim of anti-gay mob violence.
He survived a harrowing journey through South and Central America and was apprehended for crossing the US border at the San Ysidro port of entry. After his asylum request was denied, Nweke attempted to hang himself and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and depression.
Today’s press conference and rally were organized by Ola Osaze, who leads the Black LGBTQ Migrant Project of the Transgender Law Center, Luis Gomez, immigration resources specialist at the Orange County LGBT Center, and Jorge-Mario Cabrera, director of communications at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. Their goal: to put pressure on ICE to release Nweke on parole. The advocates fear his continued detention in Adelanto–without access to mental healthcare–could be life-threatening.
Gomez read a letter written by Nweke and addressed to attendees: “I have not been able to get help from psychiatrists here in detention”, he wrote. “I want you to know that i truly appreciate your help and the emotional support you’ve given me, and I must say it goes a long way toward making me feel better.”
Osaze is a queer trans Nigerian asylee. Nweke’s plight, he said, reflects experiences that have become more routine for black LGBTQ asylum seekers. “In detention centers like Adelanto”, he said, “we are re-traumatized, as Udoka was. Our health is jeopardized, as Udoka’s has been, and we are detained indefinitely and in many cases deported back to the unsafe and life threatening situations that we escaped in the first place.”
Josie Roberto, an immigration attorney with the Public Law Center who has worked on Nweke’s case, filed an appellate brief with the Board of Immigration Appeals, and said the case till be heard in early August. However, unless ICE decides to release him, she explained he will be detained until his court date.
If he is deported, Nweke could face imprisonment or the death penalty in Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal. Osaze explained the punitive codes aimed at LGBTQ Nigerians are part of the reason the Black LGBTQ Migrant Project was founded. He lives in constant fear of this outcome and yearns for freedom from Adelanto, where he says staff have threatened him with solitary confinement, shackles, and of other forms of punishment. For these reasons, Nweke’s mental health has worsened.
Nweke’s attorneys are appealing the denial of his asylum case. But because his bond and parole requests were also turned down, Osaze and his fellow rally attendees hope media attention and awareness-building will yield a favorable outcome that, so far, has not been reached through traditional channels.
The rally concluded with a chant that was borrowed from Assata Shakur, a major figure in the black liberation movement who was widely regarded as a political prisoner prior to her escape from a New Jersey correctional facility. (She now lives in Cuba, where she won asylum.) “Make Adelanto hear you”, the group was instructed: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”