To elevate perspectives on racism and xenophobia in U.S. refugee policy, the Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy hosted a lecture on Wednesday, April 26 featuring Nigerian refugee and author Edafe Okporo and University of California, Los Angeles law professor E. Tendayi Achiume.
Okporo was born and raised in Nigeria, but was forced to flee in 2016 because of his fear of persecution and sought asylum in the U.S. — only to be imprisoned in a detention center for over five months. He details his experience in his book, “Asylum: A Memoir and Manifesto.”
“The U.S. immigration stripped me of my humanity,” Okporo said. “The joy and excitement I had approaching the U.S. border seeking safety, quickly turned into pain and anguish and sorrow.”
Okporo said that he dreamed of attaining a college degree, getting married, having a job and raising children in Nigeria. When he was 18-years-old, Okporo discovered his sexual orientation as a gay person, and said he feared it would derail his possibility of achieving his desired future. He internally grappling with how his initial plans — and his personal identity — had changed.
In 2014, Nigeria passed a law that criminalized same-sex relationships. Being an openly gay person to his family and friends, Okporo knew it was no longer safe for him to stay in his home country.
“I tried to stay in my country, but as a victim of consistent violence due to my sexual orientation, I had to make a hard decision to flee in search of safety,” Okporo said.
After leaving Nigeria, Okporo imagined that he would be welcomed with open arms in the United States, but instead found himself quickly handcuffed at the John F. Kennedy International Airport on arrival. He expected to gain autonomy upon entering the United States, but that was not the case.
“I have imagined the United States to be a more welcoming place. The logo that we are standing for [is] liberty, justice [and] freedom for all,” Okporo said. “I was handcuffed at the airport, shackles placed on my feet and driven to a detention center [for] seeking safety in the United States.”
With representation from a pro-bono law firm, Okporo was released from the detention camp after spending five months and 14 days locked up in a cell. When he was released, Okporo was left to figure out how to live in the United States on his own.
“Instead of safety. I was met with hostility,” Okporo said. “I never knew what [it’s like] to live in a racist country.”
After his time in a detention center, Okporo said he saw firsthand systemic issues within the immigration system. Before arriving in the United States, the only story Okporo heard was that America was a welcoming country.
Okporo specifically emphasized in the lecture that many refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people have no other option but to migrate due to persecution, war, famine and strife. According to Okporo, the U.S.’s current laws do not reflect shifts in public perception.
Okporo stated that according to the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Americans were against immigrants relocating to America in the 1990s. Thirty years later, 66 percent of Americans see immigrants as a strong contribution to society. While American views have changed over time, Okporo believes people still question why undocumented immigrants are allowed to live in the United States, and why money is spent on immigration.
As a result of his experience, Okporo said he seeks to inform people of the problem, work to abolish detention centers and grant immigrants the chance to assimilate in American society by learning English, so they do not fall down before they are given a chance to climb up. According to Okporo, the integration process of people into the United States needs to be reviewed, and policies need to promote diversity and inclusion.
“[When I came to the U.S., I had] no housing, no legal aid, no form of support,” Okporo said. “So we’re bringing [in] people, yet allowing them to fall through the cracks of society.”
E. Tendayi Achiume
Achiume is the inaugural Alicia Miñana professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, a research associate of the African Center for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand and a professor in the Department of Jurisprudence at the University of Pretoria.
Throughout the lecture, Achiume focused on what she believes to be two basic assumptions: that borders are neutral institutions that should be protected and defended at all costs and that racism and xenophobia is not a predominant problem in the immigration and border system in the United States and the world more broadly. Achiume asserted that though these assumptions make it seem that borders are fair, there is evidence that shows these speculations are false.
Achiume said that there are policies in place governing the movement of asylum seekers and refugees, excluding immigrants in need of help. Achiume added that economic migrants — those seeking an improved standard of living — are often passed aside in favor of asylum seekers, since those seeking asylum are typically unable to return to their country of origin.
“When we think about illegal immigrants, they are understood in most public discourse as [a] political stranger right there standing outside of the political borders of ‘We the People’ — we the [United States] citizens,” Achiume said. “[It is generally accepted] that our status as citizens means that we have a collectively-held unilateral right to decide who may cross the borders of our nation-state,” Achiume said.
Achiume goes on to give examples of displaced people, such as Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, who have been displaced as a result of U.S. intervention and military operations. She said an estimated 37 million people have been displaced as refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced.
A recent decision by the Biden administration has made it a requirement that anyone seeking asylum along the U.S. southern border must do so through the CBP One mobile application. Achiume cited recent reports that the app’s facial recognition software has been unable to consistently recognize the faces of Black migrants and people looking to relocate with darker complexions. If the software is unable to recognize an individual’s face, the claim does not go through.
“Depending on where you are, one function of being socially constructed as non-white is that your non-whiteness enforces inclusion or exclusion,” Achiume said.
Additionally, Achiume said U.S. states are just as important as the federal government since they are a patchwork of immigration, inclusion and exclusion. Immigration is not a siloed space of oppression, but operates alongside other forms of exclusion, according to Achiume. She said that as a result of all of those legal developments, precedents and oppressive systems have been established.
“[There are] ongoing ways in which colonialism and capitalist imperialism fundamentally shaped national borders [by] embedding racial injustice — even in unusual seeming institutions, such as citizenship, asylum visas [and] smart border technologies,” Achiume said.
Dunia Matta ’25 is a Sun contributor. She can be reached at [email protected]