June 21 is the first day of summer, but the heat is already rising thanks to Orange County residents motivated by injustice, gun violence, immigration reform, the current occupant of the White House and burning needs to demonstrate outdoors.
Elsewhere on this website, my colleague Gabriel San Román has a report on U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) rallying the morning of June 2 with Disney Resort union workers outside the River Arena in Anaheim, where they are pushing for a $15-per-hour living-wage ordinance.
The morning before, a handful of activists gathered in front of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in downtown Santa Ana for a rally and press conference. The aim was to draw attention to the sad plight of Udoka Nweke, a 29-year-old who faces, at best, 14 years in prison and, at worst, death in his native Nigeria. Why? Because Nweke is gay.
He fled his home country in the hopes of finding freedom in that shining city on the hill known as the United States. His travels took him through South and Central America as well as Mexico before he arrived in 2016 at the border in San Ysidro, surrendered to American authorities and pleaded for asylum.
But for the past 15 months, Nweke has been detained at the Adelanto Detention Center, which the private Geo Group operates for ICE. The federal agency confirms that Nweke transferred into their custody in 2016 as a result of an order by a Nigerian judge who has ruled the refugee must be immediately returned to that country. The case is pending appeal.
While awaiting an uncertain fate, Nweke has suffered fear, isolation and hopelessness, which has led him to attempt suicide multiple times, according to activists, who say the migrant has repeatedly been denied bond, asylum and parole requests by the U.S. government.
And so, just before LGBTQ Pride Month began, activists from that community joined representatives of other civil-, human- and immigration-rights organizations in front of ICE’s office at 34 Civic Center Plaza in Santa Ana for a “Free Udoka” demonstration.
“Udoka is continuing to dwindle because of the trauma he has endured,” Zack Mohamed of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration told the gathered. “All Udoka did was try to give himself up for asylum.” After noting that people of color have always played a part in Pride Month, he led a chant that would return often at the protest: “Free Udoka!”
Zerihoun Yilma of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights said, “All Udoka is asking for is an opportunity to start from scratch.”
And Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, noted that the migrant needs to be released so he may receive mental-health treatment. “Just one week ago, a transgender woman died in ICE custody,” Hayashi said. “Like Udoka, she faced violence and sought asylum in the U.S. . . . She died less than a month after presenting herself at the border. . . . This abusive treatment of LGBTQ migrants fleeing violence is cruel, and it must end.”
Jan Meslin of Freedom for Immigrants recalled a meeting she had with a “distraught” Nweke in February. “He told me he thought he was going to die,” she said. “He said many are found dead in their cells.
“When I visited Udoka in February and looked into his eyes, I could see the desperation,” Meslin continued. “He keeps losing hope with every step. He finds himself among all these people who do not speak English. English is his first language, so that makes him more isolated.”
A theme throughout the protest was the money the Geo Group is making off detainees such as Nweke. Pointing to the building to the side of her, Meslin said, “Now in Orange County, we have almost 1,000 people detained by ICE, and here it is Orange County that is making money because [the facility] is run by the OC sheriff.”
She called for an immediate end to all such detentions, noting that in the 1980s, there were about 30 people subjected to immigration holds. “There are more than 40,000 now,” Meslin said. “We shouldn’t even have it; it’s all about money.”
DON’T MESS WITH MESLIN
Meslin was just out of detention before the “Free Udoka” rally, having been among 20 “moral witnesses” who were arrested May 29 in Sacramento.
As part of the Poor People’s Campaign, which on Mother’s Day launched six weeks of nonviolent actions at state capitals throughout the country as well as in Washington, D.C., a rally was held on the steps of the California Capitol to protest “the war economy and gun violence.”
Costa Mesa’s Meslin, Long Beach’s Pat Alviso and 18 others followed their rally on the steps with the disruption of the state Assembly while it was in session. “Activists yelled out demands such as ‘Stop giving tax breaks to military companies,’” reports the organizers. “They also showed pictures of innocent victims and called out their names, ages and how they died.”
The moral witnesses were then arrested, held in Sacramento County Jail and released the next morning, although they each face misdemeanors.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“We as a community want to let council members know that convicted Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio is a horrible symbol of hate.”
—Natalie Estrada, lead organizer of No Hate Yorba Linda, as quoted in Abigail Marin’s OC Weekly online report, “Anti-Arpaio Protesters Outnumber Ex-Sheriff’s Supporters in Yorba Linda.” Former Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio made an appearance at the Yorba Linda Community Center at the invitation of Phil Liberatore, a Republican who was seeking the 39th Congressional District seat abandoned by Ed Royce (R-Fullerton).
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.