The Thing That Won't Leave

In February 1997, self-styled businessman Emmanuel Agyeman boarded a bus in Carson City, Nevada.

His destination was the central Arizona town of Eloy, which sits between Phoenix and Tucson. It was Agyeman's first visit to the Grand Canyon State, but it was hardly a vacation.

Earlier, immigration authorities had picked up the native of Ghana for overstaying his visa by several years. The bus was owned and operated by the United States government, specifically by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Though he'd married an American citizen in 1991, Agyeman, then 42, never had completed steps to win a coveted green card. The card guarantees its holder permanent residency status.

Most important, Agyeman and his wife, Barbara Levy, had failed to show for a 1992 interview with an INS officer. He later claimed Levy had been unable to attend because she'd been hospitalized after an acute episode of mental illness.

Unmoved, the government in late 1992 had ordered Agyeman -- his visa long had expired by then -- to leave the country within 30 days.

Instead, he moved alone from New Jersey to Nevada, where he says he later started an import-export business.

Agyeman says he spoke often with Levy after leaving, but he admits he never saw her again after settling in Nevada -- where, incidentally, he had some run-ins with police, including two drunken-driving convictions and a bad-check rap.

When the government finally caught up to Agyeman, it moved him to the Eloy Detention Center for incarceration and legal processing. The 1,500-bed prison for immigrants is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a company that contracts with governmental agencies nationwide.

It seemed virtually certain that U.S. authorities would soon be shipping Agyeman back to Ghana or to England, where he'd spent much of his life as the son of a well-to-do accountant.

But the monumental deportation war known as The United States of America v. Emmanuel Senyo Agyeman has yet to be decided -- more than eight years after Agyeman's 1997 detention and more than 13 years after the feds first ordered his expulsion.

Agyeman was incarcerated for more than seven of those years, which gives him the dubious distinction of being one of the nation's longest-held detainees. Like Tom Hanks' memorable character in last year's movie The Terminal, he's been stuck in immigration hell, a bewildering world of arcane laws, regulations, policies and court rulings.

In Agyeman's case, a bevy of Stanley Tucci-like government officials (Tucci played the tightly wound Homeland Security official in The Terminal) has devoted year after year to ridding the nation -- and themselves -- of him.

But Agyeman is a far more difficult study than the likable, cheery and truly innocent Hanks character, Viktor Navorski.

To call Agyeman litigious is an understatement.

To call him a model prisoner is just wrong.

Most officials he's come into contact with consider Agyeman a pesky little gnat who just won't go away. You might say he's a biting fly.

Because of his incessant clashes with authorities, he spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement. Then, last November, he was placed in a supervised release program.

Since first detaining Agyeman in 1997, the government has spent untold thousands of dollars and countless hours trying to deport him.

But Agyeman is still here, and probably isn't leaving any time soon.

Indeed, he seems to have found his life's purpose in battling the U.S. government and its assorted minions.

And, surprisingly, he's twice beaten them in the big-time arena known as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Agyeman won two separate court appeals in recent years, one against the feds and the other against the CCA prison firm. Both cases were heard by the 9th Circuit Court, which is one step below the U.S. Supreme Court.

In July 2002, the court voted 2-1 to remand Agyeman's case to Immigration Court. It was five years after a judge in Eloy had ordered his deportation.

The loss was stunning for the United States, and it made Agyeman famous in immigration law circles.

Seattle corporate attorney Leonard Feldman, who worked on that case pro bono for Agyeman, wrote in a Washington State Bar Association journal, "Besides being favorable to Mr. Agyeman, the court's opinion is often cited in cases involving important due-process principles."

Sounds compelling, and it is . . . as far as it goes.

At first blush, Emmanuel Agyeman appears to be a terribly sympathetic character whose life has been engulfed and ruined by the vagaries of immigration law.

For unlike most of his fellow prisoners, he originally wasn't even charged with a deportable criminal offense such as selling drugs, burglary or committing a violent crime.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin