Dilemma of Kenyans living illegally in Trump’s America
It has been a month since the elections that ushered in billionaire businessman Donald Trump as the President-elect of the US, but for Ms Wanjiru Njeri*, a Kenyan-born resident of Baltimore, Maryland, the shock still lingers. The once bubbly mother of four, who loves to sing in her local church choir, looks worried as she welcomes Lifestyle into her house on an unusually warm winter evening.
“I haven’t eaten much in the last three weeks because I honestly don’t have an appetite. The results of the elections hit me hard. The last time I felt like this was 11 years ago when my mother passed away in Kenya and I couldn’t travel home to bury her,” she says.
Wanjiru came to the US 17 years ago on a six-month visitor’s visa. But the lure of the “American dream” combined with the urge to be far away from her abusive husband in Kenya forced her to stay on as an illegal or undocumented immigrant.
“Things moved very fast. Three months upon arrival, my friend had already helped me get two jobs — one in a nursing home and another in a store in Baltimore. I was earning more money than ever. Apart from taking care of my mother, I was also in a position to pay fees for my twin children in a Kenyan boarding school while I pursued a career in nursing,” she says.
Not wanting to live in a fool’s paradise, she contacted an immigration lawyer who advised her to file for refugee status.
“My lawyer told me that since I was partly running away from domestic violence at home, to be granted a refugee status was a ‘no brainer’! The case went on for five years but, in the end, my application was dismissed because I couldn’t prove that my husband had beaten me,” she says.
Wanjiru eventually qualified as a nurse, fell in love with a new man (who was unfortunately also living illegally) with whom she has had two other children, brought her twins from Kenya to the US, bought an apartment and became a women’s leader in a Baltimore church that is popular with Kenyans living in the US.
All appeared to be going well until the Republican candidate with a tough anti-immigrant stance defied all expectations to beat perceived frontrunner and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
“I now have two children who were born here and are therefore American citizens, two born in Kenya who are here illegally but doing so well in school while my current husband and I are here illegally. If Trump deports us back home where shall we go? I haven’t been back in Kenya in the last 17 years! Where do I start?” Wanjiru says.
She is just one of thousands of Kenyans living in the US illegally, and who find themselves under the threat of deportation following the President-elect’s warning on the campaign trail that he will target at least 11 million people living in the US illegally.
Once considered one of the friendliest countries for immigrants, the US appears to have joined a wave of international resentment against immigration that has mostly been sweeping through Europe. The 2010 census puts the number of Kenyans living in the US at 92,638 but this figure is generally believed to be a huge underestimate because illegal immigrants rarely take part in such surveys.
“Many Kenyans living here illegally would not even want their close friends and relatives to know their status, let alone subject themselves to a federally sponsored census with all its intrusive questions,” says David Bulindah, a Kenyan-born resident of Seattle, Washington, who is a social worker.
He agrees with several estimates from US-based Kenyan civil society groups and religious centres that there are at least 500,000 Kenyans in America. Most of these estimates have indicated that for every five Kenyans you come across in the US, at least one is in the country illegally.
For Jack*, a Kenyan-American living in Austin, Texas, deportation is the last thing on his mind. For the last two years he has been paying $1,200 (Sh120,000) every month to support his adopted son, because of a decision he regrets making while seeking citizenship.
“I never really wanted to care for him as my son though he is a respectable young man. But the law caught up with me,” he says of the 11-year-old boy, the son of his American ex-wife.
Jack is among the Kenyans who come to the US each year on tourist or student visas but with the intention of staying and eventually acquiring citizenship. One way to do this is to get married to an American.
Jack, who got his citizenship two years ago, is safe from Trump’s threat of deportation. However, some Kenyan men and women, just like other foreigners, find themselves precariously trapped in schemes such as the one he used to gain US citizenship.
Jack came to the US in 2010 soon after graduating with a degree in computer engineering from a Kenyan university. He got admission to a university in Texas to pursue a graduate degree in software engineering.
“I like the way systems work here. There are far many opportunities too. But even then, I never really wanted to stay in the US. My plan was to get a master’s and possibly a doctorate and return home,” he says.
However, an aunt who had lived in the US since 1999, when she was a 32-year-old mother of one, convinced him to get American citizenship. She left her teaching job at a high school in Kisii and travelled to America, where she enrolled in a teachers’ college for a master’s degree in education in Memphis, Tennessee. After graduating, she did a series of odd jobs, constantly moving between states in search of better prospects.
She was having difficulties getting a green card which would have allowed her to legally work but things changed when in 2003 she met Derrick*, a white man 20 years her senior, and who worked as a truck driver.
Within the year, they married in a small church wedding attended by two of her friends and Derrick’s brother and cousins. The couple settled in Houston where it was easier for her to meet fellow Kenyans. She then brought her son from Kenya to the US the following year, and got her citizenship in 2007 after successfully applying three years earlier.
Her marriage to Derrick had made the process much easier, but their union crumbled. She now runs a successful chain of restaurants.
Jack was initially hesitant to follow in his aunt’s footsteps because his long-term girlfriend in Kenya was supposed to join him later. But he was relieved when she agreed to the plan.
UNDERSTOOD WHAT WAS AT STAKE
“She understood what was at stake,” he says.
In 2012, Jack eventually got married to an African-American, a single mother who did not know his true intentions. To cement his relationship, Jack adopted the woman’s six-year-old son.
He filed for US citizenship almost immediately and got it in June 2014. However, by this time their marriage was virtually dead as he increasingly paid attention to his Kenyan girlfriend with whom they had a daughter.
Jack had already graduated and got a job at a technology company in Houston and was looking forward to living out his dreams as soon as his sham marriage was behind him. But after divorce was granted, the court ruling provided a shocker with the declaration that he could not “unadopt” the child.
“I almost broke down in the courtroom but the judge was adamant. He said the child was innocent and should not be punished for our failed marriage. He ordered me to maintain the lifestyle I had accustomed him to,” he says.
Without revealing how much he earns, he says he initially paid $700 (Sh70,000) per month when they divorced last year, but the amount rose to $1,200 (Sh120,000) as his salary grew with promotions.
In addition, the court stipulated that he must spend time with the boy every week, an awkward situation for his current family that is nevertheless getting used to the situation. But this has to continue until the boy is 18.
“Sometimes, I just think of running off to Kenya to avoid it all, but then I think of my wife and children,” he said.
But Jack considers himself lucky since his ex-wife did not report him to the authorities after she found out he used her to get American citizenship.
For example, in April and May 2014, five Kenyans were sentenced to serve various jail terms for marriage fraud, visa fraud and conspiracy to commit marriage fraud in two different cases in Houston Texas and Bangor, Maine.
In the first case in April, Margaret Kimani of Worcester, Massachusetts, was sentenced to one year in prison for being part of a scam which saw American citizens getting paid to marry immigrants so they could easily obtain permanent residency status, popularly known as a Green Card.
In the second case in May, Herman Ogoti, 53, Alfonso Ongaga, 36, Andrew Mokoro, 36, and Rebmann Ongaga, 33, were convicted for recruiting and paying US citizens, mostly women, to enter into fraudulent marriages.
Each recruited woman was to be paid $5,000 (Sh500,000) for her participation in the sham marriages. Herman and Alfonso were also convicted of unlawful procurement of naturalisation and sentenced to various jail terms. All of them had come to the US on student visas.
Margaret was sold out by her fake husband after she tried to blackmail him by claiming to the police that he had abused her.
For some Kenyan women living illegally in the US, the pursuit of citizenship often leads them into sham marriages with older white men without college degrees and in low paying jobs. They end up shackled in loveless marriages.
Caroline*, 32, a lecturer at a public university in Nevada, turned to a dating website when she was a struggling university student.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education from a Kenyan university in 2010, she came to a university in South Carolina to study psychology.
David*, a 48-year-old white man, was the only one who showed interest in her, but when they met, she was disappointed. “He was very dirty and unkempt. He did not have a job and was scrounging from friends. I had nothing but I was doing better than him,” she said.
Nonetheless, their marriage in 2012 opened the citizenship doors for her, enabling her to legally work for longer hours than the student visa allowed.
“People imagine that you come here and get yourself a rich white man to sort out your financial issues, but it’s far more complicated than that,” she says.
It is even more complicated now as she is forced to take care of David.
“He is like my baby. He has nothing and no-one but me. He is not on speaking terms with his parents and has no real friends. I took advantage of him when I needed him and I feel it is my duty to help him,” she says. But lately, she adds, divorce has been on her mind a lot.
Debra*, 30, originally from Murang’a and now a nurse working in Illinois, says she was introduced to Jonathan* in 2008. She married the 52-year-old white man but soon realised she had to provide for all his needs.
At some point, Jonathan spent most of his time watching TV all day and became dangerously obese. Recently, she decided to get him off the couch by paying for him to pursue a degree at a local university.
“He does not look like he will finish it (the degree),” says Debra.
A point of friction between them came during the recently concluded elections. The couple had agreed to vote for Hillary, but he confessed later that he had voted for Trump.
“I felt betrayed since we had agreed on voting for Clinton because I believe she has the interests of immigrants like me at heart. He told me that he voted for Trump because he believes he is the best person to bring back jobs. I am just angry at the fact that he just lied to me about it,” she says.
As the new administration takes over next month, many will be anxiously waiting to see how the expected tougher stance on immigration policies will affect their stay.
*Names changed to protect identity
‘If you don’t have papers, try stay out of trouble’
David Bulindah, a Kenyan-born resident of Seattle, who is a social worker, understands why some of those living in the US illegally are anxious about the incoming administration.
“You can classify Kenyans living here without proper status in two main categories: those who come as students and those who come in as visitors. Some of those who come here on a student visa soon find out that they cannot sustain their international tuition fees and, therefore, drop out of college to work and earn a living while those who come here as visitors soon realise that the US holds a better promise than Kenya. In the process, they all let their visas elapse or overstay them,” says Mr Bulindah.
The expert understands why panic has swept the Kenyan community. Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, regularising one’s status in the US has become complicated.
“Initially, you could come here and if you got good advice, you could take steps towards legalising your status. You could get married to an American citizen who would help you apply for a Green Card, claim in the application for a Refugee status that you fear for your life because of threats from say Mungiki, al-Shabaab or any other terrorist organisation and in a matter of months you could be given a Green Card. That is not the case any more,” says Mr Bulindah.
Mr Geoffrey Soyiantet, the Director of Vitendo 4 Africa, a non-profit organisation based in St Louis, Missouri, whose activities are directed towards empowering African immigrants, says most Kenyans who have issues with their legal status had hoped for a Democrat’s win.
“These people now have to constantly live with the threat of deportation if Mr Trump makes good his campaign promise,” says Mr Soyiantet.
IMMUNITY AGAINST DEPORTATION
A US-based immigration lawyer, Ms Naima Said, says she has experienced an upsurge in the number of Kenyans who have come to her office expressing concern about what is likely to happen to them and their children, some of whom were granted immunity against deportation under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that is likely to be done away with.
“Since this programme is renewed every two years, there is fear that the Trump administration will just ignore it and let it lapse,” Ms Said explains.
However, she and other immigration lawyers are cautioning that despite all the campaign rhetoric, the federal government is not in a position to deport all the illegal immigrants currently in the US. They say that what is likely to happen is the tightening of rules that would apply to those seeking to enter the US.
“As it is now, there is a backlog of immigration cases in federal courts and therefore I don’t see the government rounding up people to deport them unless they are criminals,” says Japheth Matemu, an immigration lawyer based in Washington DC.
He urges those living illegally not to panic and asked them to seek the services of immigration experts for advice on legalising their stay in the US.
Mr Matemu’s sentiments are shared by Eutyckus Kangarua, the proprietor of Ladha Barbecue Sauce, based in New Jersey. Mr Kangarua says what is happening now is not out of the ordinary.
“If you follow the history of the US, you will realise that from time to time, there have been moments when passions have run high on immigration issues. Even this will pass. The only thing that I urge Kenyans to do is to engage lawyers and stay out of trouble,” he says, adding that those living illegally in the US should avoid committing any offences, no matter how minor, as this could eventually lead to deportation.
“People should be more concerned about DUIs (driving under the influence), drug trafficking and engaging in domestic violence than worrying about President Trump sending the police to round them up and deport them. That won’t happen because this is still America, Trump or no Trump!” he says.
By Chris Wamalwa in Philadelphia