An Augsburg University literature professor who faces deportation after losing an asylum bid years ago will report back to immigration officials next month after a Friday check-in that brought out dozens of students and other supporters.
News this week that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is gearing up to act on a long-standing deportation order against Mzenga Wanyama galvanized the campus. Wanyama, who first came to the United States in 1992 to attend graduate school, has taught at Augsburg for more than a decade. The university’s president and the mayor of Minneapolis voiced support, and students started an online petition on his behalf that drew more than 7,000 signatures in a day.
But ICE said Friday that Wanyama twice flouted orders to leave the country as his asylum bid faltered, and the agency plans to ensure he complies with a 2012 final deportation order. Under the previous administration, ICE often exercised discretion in allowing unsuccessful asylum-seekers with clean records such as Wanyama to stay. But more recently, officials have said failing to enforce judges’ deportation orders undermines the country’s immigration system and laws.
Wanyama, 60, said he will explore options to stay and is heartened by the support after years of reticence about his immigration woes.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “This turnout is the only reason why I am happy I have this situation.”
Wanyama came to the United States in 1992 to study at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and later moved to the Twin Cities, where he earned a doctorate at the University of Minnesota. More recently, he applied for asylum, saying he feared persecution because of a 2004 newspaper article critical of then-Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki. An immigration judge, the Board of Immigration Appeals and the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his case.
In recent years, Wanyama and his wife, Mary, a registered nurse, had appeared for regular check-ins with ICE officials. They have three adult sons: Two are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama deportation reprieve program for young immigrants, and another was born here and so is a U.S. citizen.
But this month, Wanyama received a letter asking him to come in with his wife ahead of his scheduled appointment to discuss plans for his departure. Katheryn Wasylik, an attorney who took the couple’s case Thursday, said she was concerned they might be detained at that Friday check-in.
Students, faculty and other supporters gathered in front of ICE headquarters at Fort Snelling, holding “We stand with Professor Wanyama” signs. They cheered when Wanyama and his wife emerged from the building after their appointment. He said officials asked him to return in a month with more information on his plans to leave the United States.
Wasylik said she is looking into whether she might be able to make a fresh case for Wanyama to stay. A slew of immigrant rights nonprofits have offered to pitch in.
She said ICE officials have made it clear they now feel the pending deportation order compels them to act, though not much has changed otherwise in her client’s situation.
“I think what has changed is that discretion ICE had to prioritize the individuals who need to leave — that’s gone now,” she said. “Everyone is a target for removal.”
Shawn Neudauer, a St. Paul-based ICE spokesman, said Wanyama has been granted due process in the immigration courts. “ICE has instructed him to provide evidence that he intends to comply with the judge’s final order of removal,” Neudauer said.
The agency has said that while it continues to focus primarily on those with criminal convictions and previous deportations, its officials have stressed it will not exempt anyone in the country illegally from deportation.
Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow voiced relief that Wanyama had been granted extra time and pledged the Minneapolis-based university will help as much as it can with his immigration case. In a statement, he called the professor “a respected friend, teacher and peer” whose scholarship helped shape Augsburg’s undergraduate curriculum.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey called Wanyama a “pillar of the community.”
“No President, no federal agency will deport Dr. Wanyama without a fight from me, from our partners in the state and federal delegations, and from the thousands of people in Minneapolis who share our values,” he said in a statement.
Gabriel Benson, an English major at Augsburg who started the petition in support of Wanyama, says the professor brings a valuable point of view to campus, particularly to the post-colonial and African-American literature in which he specializes. His classes are marked by lively, thought-provoking discussion.
Benson first realized on Thursday that Wanyama lacks legal status and faces deportation. “I was horrified and angry,” he said. “To hear this would be happening to anybody is outrageous and infuriating.”
Students vowed to return for Wanyama’s next appointment with ICE officials in April. “We are going to fight,” said Wanyama.