Caught in a web of bureaucracy, longtime local businesswoman Uzoamaka was arrested and put on a plane to London in August. Her lawyers blame the inefficiency of post-9/11 immigration enforcement.
The hard reality of the situation didn't hit until she saw the Philadelphia skyline out the car window, receding slowly into the hazy waves of the late summer afternoon.
By the next morning she'd be in London, the city where she was born but barely knew, an ocean away from her mother, her 12-year-old son and Philadelphia, the city she'd considered home for the last 18 years, and where she was known and loved by many.
Hours earlier, after officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had sarcastically asked her if she'd been to London lately, she was placed in a holding cell, then driven to the airport in handcuffs.
When her plane took off, she had only her backpack and less than $2 in cash.
Janet Uzoamaka Nwizugbo (known to her many friends as Uzoamaka, or simply "Uzo") arrived in Philadelphia in 1989 on a student visa to attend Temple University.
Though born in England and raised largely in Nigeria and Jamaica, Uzo had lived in the United States twice before-once at age 3, when her father was attending the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, and again at age 5, when her family briefly moved back to the States after war broke out in her father's Nigerian homeland.
After attending school near Scotland (the only time she'd ever lived in England), Uzo had the chance to attend either Temple or the Rhode Island School of Design to pursue art and architecture, her two primary interests. She chose Temple.
Uzo was 24 when she entered Temple. She says she quickly fell in love with an American and got married just three years after arriving in the United States. Knowing that her student visa would expire within five years, she applied for a green card. But less than a year into the marriage, her husband went to Delaware to visit his ailing mother and never came back.
Now a decade later, Uzo says she was young and naive, and married too fast. She describes the union as a Vegas-style marriage, and says she now regrets the decision, though at the time she believed she was in love. When her husband left, Uzo spent two years trying to find him, going to Delaware to try to track him down and repeatedly contacting the only friend of her husband's she knew in the area. She started hearing rumors that he'd been incarcerated.
Resigned to the fact that she had to move on, Uzo, in her late 20s, began building a new life. She opened a store at 21st and Walnut streets called Uzoamaka World Beat Emporium, where she sold one-of-a-kind items from around the world. Based on the inventory and the strength of her personality, she soon developed a loyal client base. In 1993 she had a son named Fairuz with a man she'd been close to.
Her life, both public and private, was now totally immersed in Philadelphia.
For the eight months
The petition, one U.S. citizens often make to obtain legal status for a relative, had been filed by her mother Barbara Bulgin-Nwizugbo on her behalf. Called an I-130, the petition had to be processed and approved before a visa could be issued.
Uzo's mother and four younger siblings had all been granted American citizenship by 1999. One of Uzo's younger sisters was born in the United States in the '60s, when the family was living in Massachusetts, so she easily obtained legal status for her mother through an I-130 form in 1991. Uzo's oldest brother married an American, and her other two siblings were granted citizenship through their mother.
So when Uzo's mother filed a petition for her eldest daughter's citizenship in August 2000, she had every reason to believe the family's luck would hold.
But Uzo, who'd been granted a marriage annulment in 2001, visited the Philadelphia USCIS office with concerns about her legal status.
After bringing her situation to their attention, she was immediately issued a notice to appear in court, which initiated deportation proceedings. To avoid getting sent out of the country, she'd either need a court to grant her a stay or find a quick way to obtain legal status. In an attempt to terminate or delay deportation, she hired Philadelphia immigration attorney Lisa Baird.