Cecilia Ojoawo is blind, the consequence of the smallpox she suffered as a 10-year-old. Despite the handicap, she worked hard in school, won scholarships to the United States. She earned undergraduate and graduate degrees and completed all the course work for a doctorate at Boston University. A single, devout Catholic, Ojoawo devoted her career and her personal life to helping the blind in this country, as a teacher and a counselor and volunteer. But, in 1986, she returned to Nigeria for a few months to care for a brother injured in a car accident. Back here, years later — in 2006 — when she applied for permanent residency, she was denied the green card, declared “out of status” and warned she could be deported — because, federal immigrations officials contended, she had overstayed her visit.
“But I proved to them they were wrong,” says Ojoawo. “I won the appeal.”
While she fought to remain in this country, she lost her job working for the state Commission for the Blind because of her immigration status. She could not receive benefits, including unemployment. Her small Toms River condominium went into foreclosure. Ojoawo used up her savings and cashed in her pension benefits, and lived off that money for a while, but now she is broke. And she owes nearly $10,000 in fees to the lawyer who helped her win her appeal. The incident that provoked her sobs may simply have been a mistake, Ojoawo says. There is no evidence yet that federal officials are trying again to punish her for her alleged overstay in 1986 as they did in 2006. Now, she says, officials at the immigration office say her case is under review at a center operated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Lee’s Summit, Mo. Has been for months.
“But how much can one person take?” asks a friend and neighbor, Rose Crapis. She is one of many parishioners of St. Justin the Martyr Church in Toms River who have joined with members of Our Lady of the Valley to try to help Ojoawo. They raise money for her and help provide transportation. Anita Moore, a spokesperson for the federal immigration office, says, “USCIS is unable to speak on individual cases due to privacy.” She did recommend that Ojoawo log on to the office’s website to check the status of her appeal.
tl;dr A paperwork snafu screwed up the green card status of a blind woman who has lived in the United States for 3 decades so completely that she’s bankrupt and may be deported, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ solution is to tell her to CHECK THEIR WEBSITE.