Woman fights deportation to Nigeria Mother foresees harm to U.S.-born daughter

May 30, 1998|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

For the past 10 years, Chenidu Anikwata's life has been blissfully ordinary. The Rockville sixth-grader loves art class, Hollywood movies and hanging out at the mall.

But this thoroughly American child could soon be thrust into an alien new existence -- one that her mother fears will shatter her happy childhood.

Although Chenidu, who was born in Washington, D.C., is a U.S. citizen, her mother, Virginia Anikwata, is not. Immigration authorities want to deport Anikwata to Nigeria, into a culture that practices female genital mutilation and polygamous marriages.

"I would never want my daughter to go through that," said Anikwata, who underwent the circumcision ritual -- typically done without anesthesia -- at the age of 1.

If they return to Nigeria, Anikwata says, both women will be considered the property of her late husband's family. "There's nothing I could do to prevent it," she said of the fate awaiting her daughter.

Legally, Chenidu is entitled to remain in the United States. But Anikwata, a Nigerian national whose husband died two months after Chenidu was born, says she has no relatives here with whom she could entrust her daughter.

Faced with the choice of delivering Chenidu to a devastating new lifestyle or leaving her behind, the 36-year-old licensed practical nurse has decided to fight.

Appeal under consideration

Anikwata publicized her plight at a Rockville news conference yesterday, just a day after she was released from the Dorchester County Detention Center. She had been jailed for three weeks before Baltimore INS officials decided to grant her a stay of deportation while they consider her appeal to reopen her case.

Anikwata isn't the first person who has pleaded with the INS for refuge from a culture whose practices clash with American traditions.

Groundbreaking case

In a groundbreaking 1996 case, a 16-year-old named Fauziya Kasinga won political asylum after she fled to the United States and begged officials not to send her back to Togo, where she faced genital mutilation. Since then, INS officials say, two dozen women have been allowed to remain in this country rather than be deported and face the procedure.

What distinguishes Anikwata's effort, however, is the legal avenue she is employing in an effort to halt INS agents in their tracks. She is one of the first people to plead her case under the Convention Against Torture, which was ratified by the U.S. government in 1996.

The innovative strategy is essentially a last-ditch effort for Anikwata. The Board of Immigration Appeals recently concluded there is little likelihood that the motion to reopen her case will be granted."

Circumcision as torture

In her separate petition filed under the Convention Against Torture, Anikwata argues that the circumcision ritual she was forced to endure constitutes torture or cruel and inhuman treatment. The convention prohibits the return of such people to their native countries.

The procedure, conducted on girls of all ages, involves cutting away parts of the female genitalia, stitching together the area and leaving just a tiny hole for urination. Such circumcision can cause severe infections and death. It is estimated that between 85 and 114 million women have been mutilated.

Complicated issues

Russell A. Bergeron Jr., an INS spokesman, noted that Anikwata's plea is complicated by the fact that she has already been circumcised and her daughter, who is threatened with mutilation, is a U.S. citizen and not in need of asylum.

Anikwata says her situation isn't that straightforward. If she returns to Nigeria without her daughter, her in-laws will be furious, she said. "They'll say maybe I have sold her or abandoned her in the United States," she said. "They might kill me. It is possible. I am their property."

Anikwata said she would likely be forced into a polygamous marriage under the Ibo tribal tradition, in addition to facing shame and ridicule for not having kept her head shaved since her husband's death of lung cancer in 1987.

She also would be apart from the daughter she says is the only important person in her life.

Difficult separation

Chenidu, a tall girl with braided hair and gold-rimmed glasses who is considered a gifted and talented student, said it was hard enough being separated while her mother was in jail. "I was very, very sad," said Chenidu, who is called by her middle name, Sharon, by classmates.

If her mother returned to Nigeria without her, she said, "I wouldn't like it at all."

Pub Date: 5/30/98

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