Living in exile | Feature | Chicago Reader

Living in exile 

After her husband was deported, Katrina Jabbi moved her family to Gambia to be with him. Then the pandemic happened.

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click to enlarge PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RACHEL HAWLEY
  • Photo illustration by Rachel Hawley

On February 14, 2018, Katrina Jabbi and her husband Buba needed a distraction. Buba had a meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the next day.

The Jabbis lived in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. They both were off work, Katrina from her Amazon store and Buba from his job as a long-haul truck driver. They dropped their five-year-old daughter, Nalia, at school, and left their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Aisha, with a babysitter. They bought flowers, candy, and balloons and set up a Valentine's Day party for their daughters on the kitchen table. In the evening, they took the girls out to dinner. Katrina, who was 31 years old, was pregnant with their third child.

After dinner, they drove Nalia to Katrina's mother's house for a sleepover. Usually a drop-off at grandma's was unceremonious. But on this night Katrina did something unexpected. She told Nalia to "turn around and I said, Go give daddy a hug and say goodnight." She now wonders if she had a sense of what was to come.

Anxiety was, of course, the most logical emotion for the family to feel before a check-in with ICE, an agency that had the authority to remove Buba from his home and his family. "I know he didn't sleep well," Katrina said. "He never really did before any of his check-ins, because it's so uncertain. You just never know what is going to happen."

A few months earlier Buba received notice that ICE had bumped his appointment date up by six months, from June 2018 to December 2017. He had to work on the new date, so he contacted the agency to reschedule. They moved his appointment to February 2018. Since Donald Trump took office, the Jabbis had heard stories of immigrants getting detained during these appointments. Any deviation, even a change in date, felt like cause for concern.

On the morning of February 15, Katrina and Buba woke up early to drive the 160 miles from their home to the Milwaukee ICE office. An agent escorted Buba to his appointment while Katrina sat in the waiting room. Katrina has the kind-but-firm disposition required of a woman with small children, meaning she isn't easily rattled or upset. But she started to worry. She watched the hands tick on a clock in the waiting room. It felt like the process was taking longer than usual. Then she got a text from her husband: "I'm going to the Gambia."

Katrina called his phone, but he didn't answer. She began to sweat and shake. She felt like she was going to pass out. When Buba finally picked up, he said, "They're taking me." Katrina recalled later that an officer told her that she couldn't be on her phone in the waiting room. She made her way downstairs to the lobby. Another officer handed her Buba's wallet, car keys, and wedding ring. Katrina asked if she could see her husband, but was told that wouldn't be possible. "What am I going to tell my kids?" she yelled.

The February 15 check-in with ICE was Buba's 14th. At the time, he was one of 2.6 million immigrants on ICE's "non-detained docket," a system that requires people to check in with the agency at varying intervals. People on the non-detained docket either still have cases working their way through the backlogged immigration court, or they've received a deportation order that the government, for some reason, can't execute. Buba was on the latter track.

Buba had lived in the United States for 23 years. He arrived in August of 1995 on a tourist visa, a year after a military coup in Gambia. His visa allowed him to remain in the country for a year, but he overstayed.

He met Katrina in November of 2009 on a Greyhound bus and it was "love at first sight." "I'll never forget when he got off the bus. It was almost like my soulmate was leaving me." Katrina punctuates the melodrama with a laugh. "I remember looking out the window like I didn't want to be away from him." They kept in touch and a few months later, "I packed my bags." Katrina is a U.S. citizen, born and raised in rural Wisconsin. She has an endearing, nasally midwestern accent that comes out when she says words like bag. "I put my stuff in storage, and I went to drive with him in his truck."

When they first started dating, Katrina knew Buba was having issues with his status but, "Did I understand exactly what? Absolutely not. I had no clue or understanding of what a green card was, what removal proceedings were." Together they moved into a condo in Atlanta. Katrina was headstrong, and Buba could mellow her out. She was white and Christian, he was Black and Muslim. They learned about each other's faith, and also found space to make jokes. Katrina laughed as she remembered asking Buba if she could pray over him. He brushed her away, telling her, lovingly, "Get your Jesus hands off of me!"

In 2010, Buba's case went to immigration court in Atlanta. Judge Jonathan Pelletier had spent 16 years as an attorney for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency that managed immigration before ICE. After ICE's creation in 2003, Pelletier served as the assistant chief counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, the agency that houses ICE, in Atlanta. During his first few years on the bench, he denied 88 percent of asylum claims. Buba wasn't applying for asylum, but Atlanta immigration judges have a reputation as being some of the harshest in the country. "I probably wouldn't practice immigration law if I was [in Atlanta]," Laureen Anderson-Stepanek, an immigration attorney who worked on Buba's case, said. Buba was "dealing with a really hostile court," she added.

Pelletier ordered Buba deported. Buba came home and told Katrina he'd received "final orders of removal," the legal term for deportation. Buba reserved his right to appeal the decision, which meant he couldn't be deported for at least 30 days. There was also a logistical issue: Gambia was not issuing travel documents for its citizens to return, meaning the U.S. could not actually deport Buba. He knew this. So he decided to live his life as if nothing had changed.

Six months after the deportation order, Buba was on a job driving through Louisiana when the taillight on his truck burned out. Police officers pulled him over, ran his name through the system, and discovered that he had a final order of removal. Buba was detained. Katrina couldn't afford their condo on her own, so she gathered their belongings and moved to a cheaper place. She made sure to keep track of his immigration documents, anything that could one day prove useful.

ICE released Buba from immigration detention after six months. ICE still couldn't obtain travel documents from Gambia, so the agency let him out, but he wasn't free. They put him on an order of supervision, the immigration version of parole. He'd need to check in with immigration agents as often as they requested.

For the first year, he reported every three months. Then it dropped to four months, then six months, then nine months, then once a year. He was required to tell ICE if he'd moved or switched jobs within 48 hours of the change. During check-ins, he had to answer questions about his "nationality, circumstances, habits, associations, and activities." Buba also needed to ask ICE for permission to work or move outside of Georgia.

In 2012, Buba and Katrina had their first child. The next year, they got married and moved to Wisconsin to be closer to Katrina's family. Marriage, they thought, might provide a pathway for Buba to become a citizen. Katrina filed an I-130 petition; if granted, Buba would begin the process to be a permanent resident, based on his status as the husband of an American citizen. The couple had an interview with an officer from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. USCIS is housed within the Department of Homeland Security, and administers adjustments of immigration status to those who are eligible but doesn't carry out immigration law enforcement.

USCIS approved the application in August 2015. What Katrina and Buba didn't know was that USCIS had no jurisdiction over his case. Since an immigration judge had ordered him removed, in order to make changes to Buba's status through USCIS, they first needed to get the Atlanta court to reopen his case. "[Reopening a case] is not something that the court likes to do," Anderson-Stepanek said, "But that particular court was even less likely to do it."

For a person who's been ordered deported, the process of changing immigration status through a marriage is profoundly complicated. With stacks of different cases laid out on the desk in front of her, Anderson-Stepanek began our interview last year by saying, "Let me give you some Immigration 101." If a person is deported or ordered deported, but they entered the nation with inspection at a port of entry and they're married to a U.S. citizen, usually there's a three-step process that can put them on a path to citizenship. First they ask the court to reopen their case. Then they submit waivers to be pardoned for an unlawful presence in the country and to request reentry.

The final step requires travel to a native country. Because Gambia refused to issue travel documents to its citizens, Buba couldn't leave the U.S. "He literally couldn't participate in that process," Anderson-Stepanek said.

"We were trying to save money," Katrina said. "I wasted almost like, honestly, a whole year doing that. And then we paid fees for that. And nothing came out of it."

In 2018, after agents took her husband into custody, Katrina drove to an already scheduled appointment with an immigration attorney. The attorney said her only option was to petition the court for an emergency stay of removal, a process that would prevent the government from deporting Buba. It cost $1,500. Katrina needed to prove that her husband's deportation would cause the family "irreparable harm." Deportation alone does not constitute irreparable harm. "It's absolutely traumatizing," Katrina said. "I honestly believe that we're all going through post-traumatic stress disorder right now."

Katrina enlisted others to write letters to the court to vouch for Buba's character, and to try and demonstrate the pain that would come from his deportation. One friend spoke about how Buba welcomed her and her children into his home when she was fleeing an abusive relationship. Katrina's own dad wrote about the financial and emotional burden Buba's deportation would cause Katrina. Buba's brother wrote about the potential for violence or ostracization he and Katrina could face in Gambia because of their interracial and interfaith marriage. Katrina signed her letter two days after Buba was taken into custody. "It was hard for me to even be strong for our children," she wrote. "I am pregnant, and I could barely nourish myself. I am literally and physically sick."

The attorney cited the letters, the pregnancy, and the depression Katrina has struggled with since she was a teenager, but the court denied the request.

Before Buba was deported, Katrina took the children to visit him at the jail. "I told my oldest, I was like, You know, daddy is from a different country. And he doesn't have the right papers." As she recounted this story a year later, Katrina said this last sentence almost like a question. How could she begin to tell a five-year-old that her father had disappeared because of paperwork? "I had to explain it really simple," she said. "He's not a bad person, but they want to take him back to his country."

About a week after Buba was taken into immigration custody Katrina started a GoFundMe page. She raised almost $14,000, which helped make up for the immediate loss of Buba's income, but telling her story also elicited hate, as swarms of racist posts flooded her social media feed. "It was just really cruel," she said.

Even with the influx of money from the GoFundMe, Katrina couldn't afford to stay in their home in Wisconsin Rapids. She packed up what she could into a shipping container, sold the house, and moved into her father's basement. The children didn't comprehend the permanence of Buba's absence. When Christmas came, Nalia said she was excited because it was a special holiday which meant "daddy was coming home." She said the same when the baby, Noble, was born in November. When Katrina went into labor she called her husband, but Gambia is six hours ahead of Wisconsin. He was asleep.

"When people speak of mental illness and depression, you know, I've had my bouts of it growing up," Katrina said. "But like, this was some depression. I mean, it was crippling, where I could barely function. Some days I could barely eat. And then you have to take care of yourself because you're pregnant and you're thinking, Oh my gosh, is this baby gonna make it?" She continued. "There's no way you can prepare yourself for this. None. Like financially, mentally, emotionally, physically. It's like a grieving process. You feel like that person died."

Katrina didn't know what to do. She googled "husband deported," "deportee wife," "moving with deported husband," searching for people in situations similar to hers. She didn't think anyone could really understand what she was experiencing. But soon she found a whole Facebook world of women who, unfortunately, knew exactly what she was going through. Women in mixed-status families who experienced deportation and were deciding whether to have a long-distance relationship or uproot their lives in America and move.

She introduced herself in the groups and many offered to talk on the phone with her. They told her about their own decisions to stay or to go. Katrina said she wouldn't have felt certain enough to make the choice to move to Gambia had she not met the other women who'd already made that move. "[Our kids] deserve to have their father in their life," she said.

In June of 2018, when she was five months pregnant, Katrina traveled alone to Gambia for the first time. She would spend three weeks envisioning a life there for herself and her children. She decided that the Jabbis would keep fighting to bring Buba back to America, but they'd do it from Gambia.

Katrina packed the girls' favorite things—cupcake mix, sugary cereal, Play-Doh, coloring books—and worried about leaving their home and friends. She warned Nalia and Aisha that in Gambia there aren't so many water parks and rollercoasters. "We can make our own fun," Nalia assured her mom.

"We forget that there's a whole other family waiting for us," Katrina said, referring to Buba's parents and siblings. "They have the same feelings and emotions as my family over here. And it's fair that they get to see their family, their grandkids and their nieces and nephews. And my husband deserves to meet his son and see his children."

In 1907 Congress passed the Expatriation Act, which stripped American women of their citizenship if they married noncitizen men. In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled that women knew when they married noncitizen men that they'd lose their citizenship. Over the next few decades, the Expatriation Act lost its power as it generally fell out of fashion to write laws that explicitly tied women's personhood to their husbands.

But like the women of the early 20th century, many women who today join their deported husbands outside of the U.S. don't see their lives abroad as much of a choice at all. They refer to themselves as living in exile. They argue that by deporting their husbands, the immigration system has forced them to live abroad.

In March 2019, 13 months after her husband's deportation, Katrina packed her three kids and ten boxes into the car and drove four hours to O'Hare International Airport. She strapped her five-month-old son to her front and pushed Aisha in a stroller, with sippy cups, bottles, and baby formula stuffed in its cup holders. Nalia walked by her mom's side. After eight hours in the air, they arrived at Gatwick Airport in London for a six-hour layover, where Katrina rechecked her boxes. She couldn't imagine doing this without the help of a camerawoman and reporter from Matter of Fact TV, who were documenting the journey. Next up was a seven-hour flight.

When the pilot announced they had arrived at Banjul International Airport in Gambia, Katrina felt a wave of relief. She and the girls walked down the stairs into the 90-degree heat, then to the security line. On the other side of a glass window they saw Buba, holding a pink bouquet. It was surreal. The moment Katrina had been waiting for was finally here.

The girls ran towards Buba squealing. He squatted and they jumped into his arms. "Africa has been waiting for you," he said. Katrina and Buba hugged and kissed. For the first time, Buba held his son. "Hey," he said. "You're with daddy now."

The children met their grandparents and aunts and uncles and played with their cousins in the family compound in Kotu. They went to the beach. They celebrated Ramadan. But earlier this year, Katrina and Buba also noticed that their baby, Noble, wasn't growing as he should. The doctor suggested he might have a genetic disorder and encouraged the family to take him back to the U.S. to get diagnosed, because in Gambia they didn't have the proper technology. Katrina booked a ticket for March.

Then the first case of coronavirus arrived in Gambia and the country went into a nationwide lockdown. Her flight was canceled. Katrina watched as the numbers of infected and dying grew each day in the U.S. while in Gambia the caseload stayed low. It seemed like they'd be safer from the virus if they stayed in Africa. But she also considered the reality that borders could be closed for a very, very long time. Their son needed to be seen by a doctor as quickly as possible.

After unsuccessfully contacting several airlines, Katrina's mother called her senator's office and learned about repatriation flights to D.C. that the state department and the U.S. embassies organized for stranded citizens. The flight from Gambia was set to leave in the first week of April. Katrina received a form explaining the repatriation process. In it, the State Department wrote, "the approximate cost of this flight is $1,900 per passenger—please note that the final cost could be more." The total cost of Katrina's original flight back to the U.S., for her and all three of her children, had been $1,500. Now she'd be expected to pay the U.S. government $7,600. She had no other option. To board the flight, passengers needed to sign a promissory note to the government indicating that they’d pay back the amount in full.

After waiting for nine hours in the airport, she and the children had their temperatures checked and boarded the flight on April 7. Katrina covered her mouth and nose with a scarf and helped her kids do the same with their airline-issued sleep masks. Due to his status as a deportee, Buba wasn't allowed to join. "Our kids begged for him to come with us," Katrina said. "They just don't understand. I've just explained he has to have special papers to come back to America, then they ask more questions." The girls cried at the airport as they said goodbye.

They landed in D.C. in the middle of the night. Katrina's brother, who lives in Virginia, helped arrange a hotel room for the night and a flight the next morning to Wisconsin. She said that no one took their temperatures or told them to quarantine after arrival, but they did anyway.

Things have been slow going as they readjust to living in America and to the reality of lockdowns and social distancing. It's unclear when she and her children will be able to go back to Gambia to see Buba, both because of COVID-19 and because of her new debt with the U.S. government. The promissory note that Katrina signed stipulates that until she has paid off the $7,600 cost of the flight, she and her children cannot get new passports. Their current ones expire in 2024.  v

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