Udoka Nweke’s life depends on his release from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That is according to advocacy groups who gathered in front of the ICE office in Santa Ana, CA to demand the gay Nigerian’s release from custody Friday.
According to advocates, Nweke’s 15 months in isolation at Adelanto Detention Center in San Bernardino County put him at risk of suicidality. He can’t go home to Nigeria where he could face imprisonment or death.
“There is no reason to keep him locked up,” Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, told reporters Friday. “He’s simply seeking safety.”
According to advocates, Nweke, 29, is seeking asylum from Nigeria because he faces extreme persecution. Since 2014, Nigeria has banned same-sex relationships, with punishments carrying prison sentences from 10 to 14 years in prison. In some parts of the country, LGBTQ people can be put to death.
Nweke escaped a mob trying to kill him, according to immigrants rights organizations. Jan Meslin, director of social change development at Freedom for Immigrants, has been visiting Nweke in detention. She said Nweke also feared he had been poisoned in Nigeria, so he sought asylum in the United States.
According to an ICE statement to INTO, Nweke applied for admission via San Ysidro port of entry in December 2016 and was denied entry. He was ordered removed, but appealed the decision. He has been held in custody ever since.
Both ICE and advocacy organizations confirm that Nweke suffers from mental illness. Advocates say that Nweke tried to take his own life while in custody, and that he is at risk of suicidality if he remains incarcerated.
Luis Gomez of LGBTQ Center of Orange County says a network of organizations have coordinated support for Nweke to assist him once he’s freed.
“Everything is in place for him to receive all the help that needs,” Gomez said. “All he needs is to be released.”
ICE officials rejected those assertions. In a statement, the agency said that Nweke had been examined by medical and mental health professionals when he entered custody.
“In the ongoing evaluation of his health, medical professionals have determined that Mr. Nweke does suffer from mental illness, which is managed with medication and closely monitored by mental health professionals,” the agency said. “Furthermore, Mr. Nweke has not attempted to end his life while in ICE custody; claims to the contrary are false.”
The demands to release Nweke come just days after a 33-year-old transgender woman died in ICE custody after she suffered pneumonia, dehydration and complications associated with HIV. Roxana Hernández ultimately died of cardiac arrest. Her death has sparked national fury, and LGBTQ groups have called for the release of all transgender detainees in ICE custody as a result.
“Paired with the abuse we know transgender people regularly suffer in ICE detention, the death of Ms. Hernández sends the message that transgender people are disposable and do not deserve dignity, safety or even life,” said Isa Noyola, deputy director at Transgender Law Center.
Advocates drew a parallel between Hernández’s story and Udoko’s, stating that both sought safety in the U.S. and were met with unnecessary brutality. They wanted to prevent Udoko from a fate like Hernández’s.
“Without releasing him, ICE is effectively working to kill him,” Gomez said.