On Monday, Malick Njai received an unsettling letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency wanted him to report to their Phoenix office, and something about the request felt wrong.
By Friday, the father of two who's lived in Arizona for 22 years was in ICE's detention facility in Florence.
Now, the family is waiting anxiously to hear whether the U.S. is going to deport 43-year-old Njai to Gambia, a country that he can hardly call home after two decades spent building a life here.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen to your family. It’s a horrible feeling,” Njai’s wife, Kristine Kimura, told Phoenix New Times from the parking lot of the Florence facility, their 9-year-old son, Moussa, in the car's backseat.
Njai had recently checked in with immigration authorities in October, and then visited them again in January. He wasn’t supposed to meet them again until April, and his work permit hadn’t expired either. So when they received the letter from ICE, Kimura recalled thinking, “Something’s not right.”
They contacted his attorney, Delia Salvatierra, who is now seeking to halt Njai’s deportation, which Salvatierra says could be “imminent.” After they arrived at ICE's Phoenix office on Thursday morning, Njai was detained.
The family lives in Glendale. Kimura said that she called ICE on Friday morning and was told Njai was in Florence. But after Kimura drove to the detention center and asked security officers and other officials, who gave conflicting answers, someone finally told her that Njai had been moved back to the Phoenix office.
"I don’t know why in less than a 24-hour period they would’ve moved him from Phoenix, to Florence, back to Phoenix," Kimura said.
On Friday afternoon, she was on the road to Florence again.
A spokesperson for ICE declined to comment on Njai's case.
According to Kimura, staffers at Arizona’s Senate offices told her that the Trump administration's focus on immigration enforcement likely prompted the authorities to turn their attention to Njai.
Thursday, Kimura spoke with staff at the offices of Senator Jeff Flake and Senator John McCain. She said that McCain’s office told her it sent a congressional inquiry to Washington’s ICE office; Flake’s staff said they would check with the Phoenix ICE office to see what they could do about Njai’s impending deportation.
Even for someone who has dealt with the capriciousness of the immigration system for a long time, the abrupt change in status feels cruel.
“As our president is talking about ending chain migration, what he really means is destroying families,” Kimura said. “I know for him it doesn’t matter. It’s just crazy — for our family, this matters.”
Poor legal representation when he arrived in the United States in 1995 has affected Njai’s case, Kimura said.
Njai had a dispute with his former spouse that led to her informing on him to immigration authorities, according to court records. Under the advice of an attorney, Njai later pleaded guilty to a charge of falsely claiming U.S. citizenship because he had obtained an identification card in Arizona in order to work as a nursing assistant. He spent a year on supervised release as a result of his plea, but it made him ineligible for permanent residency.
The dispute with his former wife also led to Njai's filing for relief under the Violence Against Women Act, which includes provisions that allow immigrants to remain in the country when their legal status is tied to an abusive spouse. Documents from the immigration proceedings indicate that he was physically and emotionally abused during his first marriage.
So far, it's unclear if that will help his latest legal battle to remain in the country.
After he married Kimura, Njai was detained again by immigration officers and held in a prison with a general inmate population between 2005 and 2007, Kimura said. She describes it as a nightmarish period: Kimura would visit him three or four times a week because the detention was so awful for Njai.
"It didn’t seem like there was ever an end in sight," Kimura said.
Njai’s attorney filed a motion to reopen his case yesterday in the Board of Immigration Appeals. They’re also concerned about unrest in Gambia as a factor for Njai’s safety.
The small West African country experienced the ouster of a dictator a year ago and the country's rival factions have created an unstable political climate. “When people come back from the United States, they’re looked at with concern — like, 'What are their intentions there now?'” Kimura said.
As a result, Njai wants to apply for asylum, but Kimura said that ICE told him that the agency wouldn't accept his requests for an interview. “How can someone file a request to speak to immigration on asylum and be told that they’re going to ignore your request? That goes against everything that I think we’re supposed to stand for as a country,” Kimura said.
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Njai worked as a behavioral health technician at Aurora Behavioral Health until he had to leave his job recently because of ICE's renewed efforts to deport him. Kimura is a nurse, and the two have been married for 13 years.
In addition to his son, Njai has a 16-year-old daughter from his previous marriage.
That ominous letter on Monday has sent a wave of anxiety through their family. Although Njai has dealt with the hellishness of the immigration system for many years, this week's latest turn has the entire family on edge.
“How much can one person take?” Kimura asked.