For more than six years, Mzenga Wanyama, the Augsburg University professor who was recently placed in deportation proceedings, showed up for his regular check-ins with federal agents at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Fort Snelling.
Each time he made this journey, Wanyama, like many undocumented immigrants, feared that the agents would hand him a notice of deportation or detain him without warning.
But that wasn’t the only thing that concerned him about the usual routine. Wanyama was also terrified about the possibility of running into his undocumented students, who would also go to Fort Snelling for the same reason.
Indeed, he knew about his students’ immigration situation because some them would tell him every once in a while about their visit with ICE agents when they had to miss a class for the meeting — or if they just needed someone they could confide in.
In return, Wanyama was accommodating to the students without letting them know that he is, in fact, also an undocumented immigrant who is required to take the same trip to the ICE offices once every couple of months. “I would not necessarily want to get into the details about their situation,” he said, “but I would be so understanding and empathetic.”
Today, Wanyama’s immigration status is no longer a secret. He made it public in March after ICE officials sent him a letter asking him to come in for a meeting to discuss a plan for his deportation.
Discussing deportation plans with immigration authorities is, of course, the most difficult conversation for an immigrant, but Wanyama said the fact that he’s openly talking about his immigration status has given him a relief in the past three months.
“The fact that it’s no longer a weight on my shoulders, that I’m no longer embarrassed to share it with friends and colleagues … is really the most important part of this whole experience,” said Wanyama, a Kenya-born immigrant who teaches English, literature and African-American literary history. “I’m happy that I shared the situation and everybody could know about it.”
Getting — and losing — legal status
Wanyama’s immigration journey to the United States began in 1992 when he obtained a J-1 visa, which allows international students and professionals to participate in exchange programs here.
Through that visa, he first arrived in Washington, D.C., to pursue a Ph.D. in English at Howard University.
Later, he decided to bring his wife, Mary, as well as then 3- and 8-year-old sons. To do that, however, Wanyama needed family-friendly student housing for his wife and kids. But Howard didn’t have that.
So in 1994, Wanyama transferred to the University of Minnesota, and his family joined a year later.
In 2002, Wanyama completed the program. During the next three years, he worked as an associate professor of English at St. Cloud State University — a training experience that was part of the U.S.-funded exchange program.
By 2005, when the student visa expired, Wanyama and his family were required to return to Kenya. Before that happened, he wrote an op-ed that appeared in a major Kenyan newspaper, criticizing the administration of President Mwai Kibaki.
Because he believed that criticism would lead to a retaliatory response that could result in death or imprisonment, Wanyama decided to apply for asylum in 2005. “I don’t see a life for me there,” he said. “At my stage in life, I really want to be able to feel free to speak up when I think I need to, and I don’t think that Kenya allows me to have that freedom.”
But his request for asylum was denied in 2010. That year in June, a federal immigration judge ordered Wanyama to leave the country, said ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer.
Wanyama didn’t leave, however. Instead, as most in that circumstance do, he appealed the decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), a Virginia-based court that’s housed in the Department of Justice.
In December 2011, BIA dismissed the appeal and gave Wanyama another 60 days to leave the country. Once again, he didn’t depart on the deadline, which meant that “he automatically became subject to a final removal order,” Neudauer said.
Obama administration’s priorities
In the six years that followed, Wanyama would survive deportation. That’s mainly because the Obama administration prioritized the removal of undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
The administration, instead, required hundreds of thousands of low-priority immigrants — like Wanyama — nationwide to report to ICE agents on a regular basis. That is the reason Wanyama has been going to report to ICE since 2012.
Then in March, two months before his scheduled check-in in May, ICE sent him a letter notifying him to meet with immigration officers to discuss a plan for his departure. When he got there, immigration officials took away his Kenyan passport and told him to get ready for removal.
In another meeting with ICE in April, Wanyama was given until July 4 to leave the country.
Since March, though, his deportation case has drawn a number of protests and hundreds of supporters — including Gov. Mark Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey — who have stood in solidarity with Wanyama.
In addition, his current and former students at Augsburg University created a GoFundMe page that has so far raised more than $7,000, and set up an online petition that has so far collected more than 17,000 signatures.
“At Augsburg, we don’t just preach our beliefs, we practice them,” said Gabriel Benson, who created the online petition. “We show up to the rallies; we donate money.”
In the last 26 years Wanyama has put down his roots in Minnesota. Aside from earning a Ph.D. and securing a job at Augsburg, he raised three sons.
The two sons who came in the U.S. as children are now protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; his wife Mary, is a registered nurse, is undocumented; and the youngest son, a U.S.-born child, is now a freshman at Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.
Despite the government’s decision to remove him by July 4, Wanyama is quick to say that he doesn’t see a future in Kenya.
“I really want to be able to feel free to speak up when I think I need to,” he said. “I don’t think that Kenya allows me to have that freedom.”
It’s that reason he and his legal team are currently preparing a motion to re-open his asylum case.
Relief amid difficult times
Whatever his fate in the U.S., Wanyama said he’s relieved that he’s finally able to speak openly about his immigration status without the fear of what others think or say of him.
That wasn’t the case before just three months ago. Prior to that, Wanyama never really talked about his status with his students or colleagues because he felt that undocumented immigrants are often “stigmatized” and that they’re often made to believe that they broke the law.
“How is that breaking the law?” he asked. “All you have demonstrated is a demonstration to improve your life, and it might be simply economic. Or it could be, like in my case, real fear for your life.”
If he doesn’t get deported before the upcoming school year, he added, his interactions with Augsburg faculty members and students — especially those who are undocumented — would be different because he would no longer be ashamed about people discovering his immigration status.
“Students who are undocumented,” he said, “would actually feel freer to come and talk to me about the issue.”