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Wanyama Speaks Out

The following article is an account from Associate Professor of English Mzenga Wanyama’s experience this past year with ICE, and complications that he has experienced because of his immigration status. 

Wanyama Speaks Out: Storming Toward The “Call-In” Menace!

“This did not have to happen,” I said to English Dept chair Bob Cowgill as we discussed the implications of the latest impolitic decision by USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services). As many at Augsburg would soon hear, a week to the start of the semester of fall 2019, USCIS were still deciding whether or not to grant me work authorization. At that point, it was clear that my Employment Authorization Document (EAD) would not be processed in time for the start of the fall term. Up until this point, the document had arrived, without fail, two-three weeks before the start of the fall semester, always on a tacit understanding that as long as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) were not ready to pull the trigger on my removal order, I needed to remain gainfully employed. And every time they extended the EAD, they knew that I was a university professor whose EAD renewal could not be delayed without causing critical disruptions in my department’s academic program. They also, of course, knew that ICE expected me to have an EAD at all times, as part of their discretionary Supervision Order! 

Bob was angry and exasperated also because he knew that our petition to have the deportation order permanently rescinded was progressing well, thus strengthening our expectation that the applications for EAD renewals would be treated with greater cooperation from USCIS.  

I start with this scenario because, importantly for me, it was another opportunity to see and contemplate the great commitment to my family’s welfare that our community has demonstrated since the matter became public. Our colleagues, Sarah Combellick-Bidney, Sarah Degner-Riveros, Sarah Groeneveld-Kenney and Bob Cowgill, and our students, Terrence Shambley, John Kipper and Citlaly Escobar were ready to take the matter public again, this time directly targeting USCIS. We decided against further publicity because the measure seemed to be less strategic than our purpose required. However, the moment brought me back to memories of how a sizzling confluence of energies had initially produced a statement-making gathering in front of a “building in the middle of nowhere!” 

It was here, at the ICE headquarters, that for nearly a decade ICE had worked to quietly muffle and undermine my ability to develop a sense of belonging to the place that my family and I have lived, worked and called home for more than a quarter-century. Indeed, this is a protracted tale of truly touching manifestations of collegiality, generosity, love and concern! In this limited space, however, I wish to share only those moments that happened in the very first instance, at a time when I had little reason to expect the tremendous overflow of generosity and support that came my way. 

For more than a couple of weeks, I had gone over countless numbers of scenarios that could happen when I reported to ICE for the first time in response to a summoning instrument known as the call-in letter. This was a register that we had come to understand signaled ICE’s preparedness to flex muscle in any one of several unpleasant ways: to throw you in custody, to subject you to some humiliation, or, indeed, put you in custody as part of a removal plan. As was my wont, I had not shared the prospect with any of my friends. Through the years, I had learned to keep that end of my life to myself. A week before the date of the summons, I started contacting attorneys. I knew that if it came to it, one’s only relatively hopeful weapon when either thrown in jail or forced onto a deportation plane was to have an attorney in one’s corner. That experience–of trying to get an attorney to come with me to the appointment–put in perspective for me everything that subsequently occurred. 

The attorney of record was an individual I had earlier consulted, more than once, on the recommendation of an Augsburg colleague. She had not done much to advise me on the case beyond two expensive consultations. In any case, when I got to her at that more desperate time, she said she was busy with other work and could not help me! There was a major conference in town (the 2018 UPPER MIDWEST IMMIGRATION LAW CONFERENCE) in which she was a key participant, she said, recommending another attorney to me. When I reached that other attorney, I was struck by the casual nature she responded to what I considered to be desperate urgency in my situation. She said she could take on my case if I would still be looking for an attorney after the appointment day, and if I was willing and able to pay a $10,000 retainer deposit. She said this while observing that the call-in letter probably meant that I was going to be detained. Three days to the appointment, the atmosphere felt like a major storm was gathering inexorably. I could no longer keep the matter to myself—so I reached out to my friend, Sarah Combellick-Bidney, who, after characteristically scolding me for allowing myself “to suffer for so long in silence,” swung into action! 

Soon, following Sarah’s intervention, press releases had the news all over the air and, thanks to the work of Citlaly Escobar and other students, a furiously snowballing change.org campaign was created. But I was still unsure of what exactly would happen at the appointment, and so I kept up my search for an attorney. Mid-morning, two days before the appointment, I entered an attorney’s office. She was a reference from a niece who is a leader in the ranks of immigrant communities in Minnesota. The attorney took more than 30 minutes to see me, and when she finally walked into the waiting room where I was, she had a nettled facial expression! She did not ask who I was, and the consultation was quick and decisive. Was I willing to spend at least six months in custody while she worked on my case? She asked me. Seemingly surprised at my answer of “no”, she stood and, advising me to find another person with time to waste on people like [me], walked back to her office! 

There was something I understood about that huffiness, but I did not have time to dwell on it. I walked out of there, lightheaded and freshly at sea. I got into my car and began driving, with no particular destination in mind, but quite sure that driving my car and “just going” was the best thing for me to do at that time. Twenty minutes later, I was still driving when my phone rang. The ID said Augsburg University! “How timely,” I heard myself say, even before I knew who was calling. Well, it was Lisa Stock, Augsburg’s human resources director. The University had found an attorney for me, she said, and could I come in for a planning session the next day? Lisa’s message was a profoundly calming force in my life at that point! My family and I were no longer alone in this saga! Somehow, I stopped worrying about what ICE might have up their sleeve and began to prepare for the moment of reckoning. Not only was the matter in the public square, but I had my employer, my colleagues and our students more than willing to enter the fray on my behalf. 

Thus, if the day of the “Call-In” appointment represented the height of the entire experience, it is because of the awesome number and diversity of people who gathered in front of the building “in the middle of nowhere!” They came from everywhere in the city and from places as far-flung as Washington, DC and Seattle, Washington. They spoke, by their presence, and declared their intention to call out ICE on this their programmatic indiscretion. 

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