Augsburg University Prof. Mzenga Wanyama’s push to ward off his deportation to Kenya has drawn high-profile support: Minnesota’s governor wrote immigration authorities on his behalf, and the mayor of Minneapolis joined a Thursday rally in front of Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters.
But Wanyama’s immigration situation remains precarious. At a Thursday check-in, Wanyama said immigration officials gave him 90 days to show he has a path to regain his legal status — or leave the country.
“I am still hopeful in spite of what they told us in there,” Wanyama told dozens of supporters who gathered in front of ICE’s Fort Snelling office during his meeting with officials. “The only reason I am hopeful is because you’re here.”
Wanyama lost an asylum bid and appeals years ago, and his immigration attorney said an application to reopen his case faces uncertain prospects. Further complicating matters, Wanyama came to the United States about 25 years ago on an exchange visa, which requires him to spend at least two years in his home country before he can return here.
ICE had allowed Wanyama and his wife, Mary, a nurse, to stay as long as they appear for regular check-ins. He had argued that critical articles he wrote about Kenya’s president at the time made him a target for persecution, noting a cousin had died under suspicious circumstances. But in 2012 a federal appeals court said he had not made a strong case, pointing out that the opposition leader his articles praised had since come to head a coalition government.
Under the Trump administration, immigration authorities have acted more aggressively on final orders of removal, arguing that granting reprieves to immigrants who have exhausted their options to stay legally erodes the country’s laws.
At a check-in last month, Wanyama and his wife were told to start making plans to leave the country. ICE has said that the couple has been granted due process and the agency no longer exempts anyone from immigration enforcement.
Wanyama came to the United States in 1992 to study at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and later earned a doctorate from the University of Minnesota. A tenured campus expert on post-colonial and African-American literature, he has taught at Augsburg for more than a decade. Wanyama, who has no criminal record, and his wife have three sons: Two are recipients of an Obama-era deportation reprieve program for young immigrants whose future is in question, and the youngest, a freshman at the U, was born here and so is a U.S. citizen.
When word got out last month that Wanyama faced deportation, students and other supporters launched a push to support his efforts to stay. More than 15,000 people have signed an online petition urging authorities to let him remain. On Wednesday, Gov. Mark Dayton wrote the acting director of ICE, saying Wanyama’s deportation would be “a terrible loss” to students and urging the agency to exercise discretion in allowing him and his family to stay.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey called ICE on Wanyama’s behalf this week.
“For the word ‘deportation’ to even be in the same sentence as Dr. Wanyama is disgusting,” Frey said at Thursday’s rally, surrounded by Wanyama supporters with signs that read “Our education is not illegal” and “Please don’t deport our professor.”
Meanwhile, Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow said the university is chipping in for Wanyama’s immigration expenses. Wanyama’s attorney, Katheryn Wasylik, said most options to pursue legal status are foreclosed by the requirements of his now-expired exchange visa and his earlier deportation order. Because he stayed after that order, his departure from the United States will likely trigger a 10-year ban on returning.
Wasylik is working on an application to reopen his case based on conditions in Kenya, where Wanyama said he fears his political views might put him in danger. In a statement to supporters, Wanyama said his mother was murdered last year in his hometown, suggesting the crime might have been politically motivated.
Wasylik is also seeking a waiver of the exchange visa’s requirements, based on the hardship his U.S.-born son would face if his parents are sent back to Africa. Both can be challenging cases to make, she said.
Lori and Bruce Nixon, longtime friends at Woodbury Lutheran Church and the godparents of Wanyama’s youngest son, created a website, www.mzenga.com, to keep supporters updated. They said they never knew about the professor’s issues, which the family kept private on campus and among friends.
“We just recently woke up to what he’s going through,” Lori Nixon said. “The big question is, ‘Why didn’t they become U.S. citizens?’ But it’s not as simple as that.”