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Victory for African woman in Utah immigration case

By staff |
April 21, 2013
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Salt Lake City, UT –African immigrant Victoria Sethunya will remain in Utah for now. On April 18, Sethunya appeared in immigration court, backed by 20 friends and local activists. Some wore signs taped to their chests saying “Justice for Victoria,” and “Return her passport.”

Sethunya entered the courtroom with a new lawyer and rows of supporters. This time Judge William Nixon, who previously tried to throw out her case, granted a continuance.

Sethunya is engaged in a years-long legal battle with the complicated and corrupt U.S. immigration system. She is trying to show that she never broke any immigration rules and does not deserve deportation.

“This is a woman who is having to suffer the consequences of a clerical error, all after she fled violence in her home country,” said Henia Belalia of the group Peaceful Uprising.

Sethunya said she left Lesotho and came to the U.S. due to abuse and violence at the hands of her ex-husband. She studied English and chemistry at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. She maintained a good GPA and attended classes uninterrupted, but everything changed in 2006.

“I was told by Weber State that I had lost my immigration status due to what they called a computer error,” Sethunya said. “At some point they changed the story from a computer error to a clerical mis-accounting.”

Then Sethunya’s enrollment was revoked and her F1 foreign student immigration status lapsed. She was thrust into the court system, from which she has yet to escape. Nevertheless, Sethunya re-enrolled in school and earned a Master's degree in 2007.

Tragically, deportation threatens Sethunya with separation from her teenage daughter and her nephew, who she adopted as her son when her sister died. If deported back to Lesotho, she may have to face her violent ex-husband.

After appeals, lawsuits to correct the error, petitioning politicians and organizing supporters, Sethunya finally caught a break this year. A court said her appeal had merit and ordered Judge Nixon to hear her case again. She has until late May to produce an application for asylum.

“One big problem we have is that the law says you have to file [for asylum] within a year of arriving in the States, unless there are some extraordinary circumstances,” said attorney Mark Williams, who represents Sethunya.

Proving those extraordinary circumstances was impossible because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confiscated her passport, leaving Sethunya without identification and unable to obtain any other form of identification. Without that, she had no access to the evidence held by her now-disbarred former lawyer. Her current attorney Mark Williams said the system was forcing her to “go around in circles.”

However, a supporter from a local police agency convinced ICE agents to return her passport. Sethunya can now gather the evidence needed to apply for asylum and remain connected to her children in Utah.

Along with the Revolutionary Student Union, the Salt Lake Dream Team, a student group fighting for immigrant rights, came out to support Sethunya after she told them her story. Dream Team Vice President Itza Hernandez said, “It is important to show solidarity with everyone who is undocumented and faces deportation. We want to make sure the Obama administration keeps its word. We are holding people accountable when they've made certain promises to our community.”

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