Michigan United celebrates relief for a local woman, and sets its sights on the work ahead

When Rejoice Musa immigrated to the United States from Nigeria five years ago, her home country had not yet been overrun by the terrorist extremists who use sexual violence against young women and gruesome attacks against civilians as their weapons of choice. 

It wasn't until several years after her immigration to the U.S. that Boko Haram became a household name when they kidnapped hundreds of girls from the Chibok school in 2014, causing a global outcry. 

Amnesty International says Boko Haram has "committed war crimes and crimes against humanity with impunity," and they say that the terrorists' actions have, "crippled normal life in north-east Nigeria." In fact, since 2009, they have killed thousands, abducted at least 2,000, and forced millions to flee their homes due to violence. Rejoice's family is among those fleeing violence back home.

Rejoice came here, legally, on a student visa, but lost her legal status when she had to pause her schooling a couple of years into her stay when she became pregnant and gave birth to her son. She has since completed her degree, with honors, and is working for one of Kalamazoo's largest corporations. But since losing her status, her life, like that of the 11 million other undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., has been full of uncertainty.  

Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) is an executive order enacted by President Obama one year ago. The program offered relief to the 4.5 million parents of American children, like Rejoice, by placing them as the bottom priority for deportation. And for a few months, Rejoice found relief under DAPA. She was issued working papers and was told that, as long as she didn't commit any crimes, she would be allowed to stay. 

That all changed, earlier this year, when DAPA was challenged by 26 states, including Michigan, that argued the order was a Presidential overreach. A federal judge sided with the states, blocking the order from being able to continue. Even though Rejoice's home province is rife with terrorist violence and she and her son would surely be targets considering her Western education and single motherhood, she had already been denied asylum. Suddenly and without warning mid-November, she was fitted with an ankle tether and given a notice of deportation. On Dec. 2 she -- with or without her son -- would be placed on a plane to Nigeria.

The tragedy is the normalcy

Michigan United organizes around immigration, mass incarceration, affordable housing and childcare, and civic engagement. They have offices in Detroit, Kalamazoo and soon, Grand Rapids. They helped organize support around Rejoice's case, and they know that the tragedy of Rejoice's story is the normalcy of this situation. 

Allison Colberg is the Deputy Director of Michigan United. She says that in addition to cases like Rejoice's, there are 11 million people living in this country who are fleeing things like poverty, violence, and lack of economic opportunity in their home countries. She says even though they work hard, provide for their  families, and contribute to their communities, they still live in fear every day -- "you know, the parents walking out the door, thinking, 'will I come back tonight?' the children going to school, thinking, 'will my parents be there tonight?'"

Many people think it is easy to immigrate to the United States legally, but Colberg says that it's not, and that the rules are really stringent -- especially if one is trying to come from a non-European country or a developing country. Asylum cases are even harder to come by. "An asylum case is somebody who, for whatever reason, feels they are not able to stay in their country for fear of danger to themselves. The guidelines are very strict. It is difficult."

Colberg has worked with many, many immigrants, like Rejoice, who have been denied asylum, repeatedly, even though returning to their home country would likely result in their being killed. Colberg tells about a Chinese woman Michigan United supported. Even though she was a human trafficking victim, sold into trafficking by her father, who told her, 'if you run away from them, I'll find you and I'll take your life,' she was denied asylum several times. Michigan United campaigned around her case, and public support and advocacy saved her from deportation.

Rejoice's temporary victory and the need for reform

Public campaigns are often a last-resort intervention that can work to spare some immigrants from imminent deportation. But, they don't always work, and they are often a temporary fix. 

In the case of Rejoice, thousands of community members stepped up to sign a petition issued by Michigan United, and hundreds made calls to the state and national Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office to plead for a stay on her behalf. Senators Peters and Stabenow also intervened, and at her immigration check-in a week and a half prior to her scheduled departure, she was offered a six-month stay. A victory, albeit a temporary one.

The Obama Administration has begun the appeals process with the Supreme Court to ask them to overturn the lower court's ruling and to let the administration begin enforcing its DAPA program. But until and unless the Supreme Court overturns the lower court's injunction, immigrant parents, like Rejoice, will be out of options to stay in this country. 

And time is running out. Colberg says that the case would need to be heard in the next month or two in order for a decision to be made during the current presidential term. And that's imperative, because the program might be eliminated by the next person to occupy the Oval Office. 

"(DAPA) is really about our basic value of families and keeping families together, and what families go through to provide for the ones they love," Colberg says. "And there's also so much talent and ability that people are unable to give because of their legal status not allowing it … a program like this will enable (Rejoice) to stay and contribute to this country." Colberg says that would be a gift to her, her community, and the United States.

Day of action and a celebration

Last week, Thursday, on Human Rights Day, advocacy organizations and individuals used traction from that day to put pressure on the Supreme Court of the U.S., asking it to take action immediately on the DAPA appeal. 

On the same day, Michigan United celebrated victories, like Rejoice's case, and many others at their annual fundraiser and celebration, "Together We Rise," took place at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. One of the other big, local successes they celebrated was the victory on housing. Colberg beams as she explains, "Kalamazoo county residents handily voted to tax themselves to help provide housing to homeless families" -- an initiative that Michigan United has been working on for 13 years. 

Colberg says that the work of Michigan United is all based around asking, "Why? Why are there so many people who are suffering this problem? Why are there so many families in the school system who are homeless? Why are there so many of our African American community members ending up in prison? Why are their suspension rates different? It's hard and uncomfortable work," she says, "but so necessary. We count on community members to invest in their values by supporting this work with their finances."

You can find out more information about Michigan United and ways that you can support their work by visiting its website

Kathi Valeii is a writer, speaker, and activist living in Kalamazoo. She writes about gender-based oppression and full spectrum reproductive rights at her blog, birthanarchy.com.
 
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