Yetunde Orungbemi is smitten. The kind of love that gives you butterflies in your stomach.
Yet she faces the prospect of being estranged from her African-American husband and deported back to a country she barely knows.
Welcome to the complexities of the U.S. immigration system.
Orungbemi, who is of Nigerian origin, says the emotional weight of the court case and possibility of separation from her husband is overwhelming.
“It would be a nightmare,” she says. “I’d have to make my way without my husband beside me and as a married woman that wouldn’t be pleasurable.”
The 29-year-old Atlanta-based songstress, also known as “The Nigerian Beauty”, has lived for more than half of her life in the United States and says the prospect of being deported back to Nigeria feels her with trepidation.
“I haven’t been [to Nigeria] since 1992 when I was 7-year-old and left the country for Indonesia. I’ve been in States since 1998.”
Orungbemi claims her troubles started when she came to America as a minor, aged 14, with plans to be adopted by a family friend. At the eleventh hour her prospective adoptive parent changed his mind.
As a result she slipped through the net and was left to fend for herself. Though, she went to middle and high schools in Georgia she did not have a fixed address and survived by sleeping on friends’ couches, “including times on the streets.”
She claims her life turned around when three years ago she met Chicago-native, Nelson Barnes, a graduate student in Africa-American studies at Georgia State University. The couple fell in love.
They obtained their marriage license in July 2011 but prior to getting their marriage certificate police pulled Barnes’ cousin over in a routine traffic stop while driving in Georgia.
Orungbemi and her then-fiancé were passengers in the car and because of her undocumented status she was arrested and incarcerated for 30 days. Her husband was locked up for one day.
Talking about this traumatic experience Orungbemi, says, “It was heartbreaking, horrible to be separated from someone you love.”
When she was released the pair tied the knot on October 1, 2011.
Tuesday’s court case will decide whether Orungbemi and Barnes have an authentic marriage.
“The judge has to determine whether the marriage is bona fide,” says Dale M. Schwartz, an immigration and naturalization lawyer based in Atlanta.
If the judge decides they did not marry in good faith Orungbemi says she faces the prospect of deportation. If the marriage is seen to be genuine her husband still needs to meet certain income requirements or alternatively find a co-sponsor, says Schwartz.
“I can’t be separated from my wife,” says 31-year-old Barnes, who also goes by the name Thairu Obuya as a hip-hop artist and activist. “I’d like to go to Nigeria but on better terms.”
The young couple can’t afford an attorney and don’t have the funds for the DREAM Act, which provides conditional residency to young people who arrived in the United States as minors.
“We have considered the DREAM Act and I am almost certain I quality but being that my husband does the lion’s share we simply can’t afford the fees. We haven’t paid the rent this month and are behind on all our bills.”
“If she graduated from high school or higher or obtained a GED. Arrived in the country before the age of 16 and is under 30 then the DREAM Act could be a good option,” says Schwartz.
Many Americans associate the immigration issue to Latinos but others such as Asians, Africans and even Europeans face issues, says Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a non-profit organization that lobbies for immigration reform.
Mehlman says historically Africans have been disadvantaged by “family chain migration” where once someone arrives in the States they sponsor or petition for relatives to follow. “You tend to get large numbers (of immigrants) from relatively small countries and few from other countries.”
“The problem is our immigration system is chaotic and needs to be reformed, says Mehlman. “It’s hard to make adjustments for these exceptional cases when the whole system needs to be fixed.”
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