Technically under an order of deportation, Nigerian native Al Okere could be deported at any time. Now that he's at Central Washington University, he's getting support from activists lobbying for the so-called Dream Act.

Share story

When he was a baby, Al Okere’s father was gunned down by police officers in Nigeria.

When he was a high-school student in Pierce County, his mother was deported after losing her asylum plea, but not before spending two years in a federal detention center in Tacoma.

Now, Okere — a 21-year-old student at Central Washington University — is in immigration limbo.

He’s technically under an order of deportation, as he has been for seven years. Federal authorities could deport him at any time. They just haven’t, for one reason or another.

“It’s just been luck,” Okere said from Ellensburg. “It’s stressful right now. But I’m hopeful.”

But a few weeks back, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials asked Okere to renew his Nigerian passport, worrying Okere and his attorney that they are clearing the way for his return to the country of his birth, a land he doesn’t remember much.

Okere’s father, Nwogu Okere, who was an advertising executive, was killed in 1991 by police officers, drawing further scrutiny to a police force that had been blamed for several deaths during that time, according to human-rights reports.

Okere’s family said the killing was political because Nwogu had been critical of the government in local newspaper columns.

A few years later, Okere’s mother managed to get a tourist visa for the United States and left the country with him, first stopping in Texas then finally moving to Washington state, where they had relatives.

The two applied for asylum, but in 2002 that request was denied by an immigration judge, saying that while Okere was killed by police, the murder did not meet standards to obtain asylum.

In 2004, an appeal was set to go before a judge in Texas, but the Okeres’ lawyer at the time advised them that they could attend the hearing remotely through a telephone call. That was wrong.

The judge ordered both of them deported for failing to appear in court. The same attorney also missed a key deadline in the appeal, and the case was dismissed.

Eventually, Okere’s mother, Rosemary, was arrested and placed at the Northwest Detention Center. Failing to win her case, she was ultimately deported.

My mother is “living in hiding in Nigeria. I don’t want that life for me,” Okere said. “I don’t want to live in hiding because of how high profile the case was of my father’s death. I’m 21. I want to be a doctor.”

Seemingly running out of options, Okere decided to go public, and recruited the help from Dream Act activists.

The activists lobby for the so-called Dream Act, which would give a pathway to citizenship to children who came to the United States illegally but who attend college or enlist in the military.

“It gives us the opportunity to help people who are really scared about their status to come out,” said Mohammad Abdollahi, an organizer with DreamActivist.org. “The only way to build public support is to show that this is a person who provides value to the community and should be allowed to stay.”

Abdollahi said his organization helped Okere and his friends gather signatures and reach out to local government leaders. Around 8,700 people signed a letter of support, according to documents filed in Okere’s case.

And while President Obama told Congress to pass the Dream Act in his recent State of the Union address, the proposed law is nowhere near passage.

Through the years, the Dream Act has struggled to gain support in Congress, attracting dissent from lawmakers who don’t support legalizing illegal immigrants and internal fighting among immigrant advocacy groups.

Still, Dream Act activists rally behind cases of students facing deportations.

Dream activists are a loosely organized nationwide network of supporters and groups. They have walked along the East Coast for hundreds of miles to gain support. They have a strong presence on social-media sites. And they have also used more confrontational tactics such as sit-ins against ICE.

But for Okere’s attorney, this case is not against the immigration agency.

“We don’t want to be antagonizing ICE at all; that’s not what we’re trying to do,” Andrew Chan continued. “Part of this is saying, ‘Look, ICE, look at the community support. This is not the type of case we want to aggressively pursue.’ “

Chan has filed a petition to ICE for a temporary stay and deferred action on Okere’s deportation removal.

ICE spokesman Andrew Munoz said the agency is reviewing Okere’s case to determine the next appropriate step and declined to comment further.