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.
Cooper says PICC has a fairly good relationship with USCIS. "They've made a real effort to work with community organizations to answer questions and be responsive," she continues. "But it can be pretty difficult to figure out what's going on at ICE. There doesn't seem to be a clear set of operating principles-or not one that we've been able to discern."
If immigration lawyers and advocates themselves have trouble navigating the system, it's hard to imagine how foreigners, many of whom can barely understand English, could successfully pursue legal status.
When her petition to stay in the U.S. was denied last December, Uzo cried in the courtroom. The judge tried to console her by telling her she had another option. He said the petition her mother filed in 2000 gave her another way to obtain a visa. Based on her 12 years of experience in immigration law, Baird agreed with the judge and assumed the I-130 would provide Uzo the reprieve she needed.
Uzo and her family left the courtroom full of hope. But time passed, and the I-130 approval never came.
Before 2001 response time for similar I-130 forms filed with the INS was approximately nine to 12 months. And in fact the INS sent a notice to Uzo in September 2000, acknowledging that her I-130 had been received two weeks before.
But then came 9/11, and all INS processing capabilities were reorganized into the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service. Uzo began receiving letters apologizing for the delay. In mid-2004 her mother received a letter explaining that all of her daughter's papers had been transferred to the Philadelphia USCIS office at 16th and Callowhill.
Uzo continued to wait.
Meanwhile, she was already in removal proceedings based on the denial of her application for permanent residency. The judge who denied her request wouldn't provide her with temporary relief while she awaited a response from USCIS. USCIS spokesperson Bill Strassberger says at this point Uzo should've left the country until her visa was approved. Uzo says her lawyer Lisa Baird never informed her that the case was officially closed. Uzo thought her case was still pending.
Baird refutes Uzo's claim that she was never told the case had been closed, but adds that the complications of the law and the emotional nature of things at the time could've led Uzo to misunderstand the situation.
What's more, even if she had left the country, Uzo could've been waiting indefinitely-with no guarantee of ever returning to the U.S.-for approval of her I-130. Even now, despite the prodding of her current lawyers, there's still no word of the petition's status.
Throughout all this, Uzo went on living her life, assuming her approval would eventually come through. She even received working papers from the USCIS, which reassured her it was only a matter of time.
Last December, more than four years after Uzo's mother filed the I-130 that should've been approved in a matter of months, Uzo received a final deportation notice. She would have to leave the country within three weeks or be forcibly removed. She says this was the first time she was told her case was closed, and that she'd been under the assumption for years that no decision had been made.
Angered by the miscommunication with Baird, Uzo hired immigration lawyer Joe Hohenstein to help reopen her case.
"I asked Joe my chances," says Uzo from London, where she's been staying with friends of friends until she can get a job and the money to find a permanent place to live. "I said I'll pack up my shop and leave the States, or I could stay and fight this," she adds, desperation pulsing in her voice. "He said there was a good chance."
Early this year Uzo began wearing an electronic tracking anklet and checking in with the USCIS.
Because his client's case had been closed for so long, Hohenstein was required to ask the government to join in the motion to reopen it. Uzo was waiting to hear back about this motion-and about her long-awaited I-130-when ICE officers took her away.
"It was inappropriate for them to treat her as a fugitive when she openly reported in and always appeared at proceedings," says Hohenstein.