- Associated Press - Saturday, November 11, 2017

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Michael Osuji and Jocelyn Ponciano were born on opposite ends of the earth - he in Nigeria and she in the Philippines.

And yet, somehow, they both ended up in the United States. They met by chance seven years ago at a soccer match, at Coonskin Park, in Charleston. They were friends at first, but they fell madly in love over the years, got married and are now raising a 1-year-old daughter named Thea.

“When we’re at home and Thea hears footsteps going down the steps, she runs to the door and says, ‘Dada,’” Ponciano said. “And she waits. She waits for the door to open, but it never does.”

That’s because on the morning of Oct. 27, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials showed up without warning to Osuji and Ponciano’s home in South Charleston. In this small family, Osuji was the only one undocumented. ICE officials quickly detained him and carted him off to a detention center in Pennsylvania to be deported back to Nigeria.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Ponciano said. “I actually thought I was in trouble, because I’m usually the one in trouble, not him. I didn’t start processing it until he was going out the door. I’ve actually never seen him cry - never. That was the first time.”

After Osuji was detained, his friends and family started a campaign to stop his deportation. His church, Blessed Sacrament Church of South Charleston, is sending a letter to an immigration judge in hopes of stopping the deportation.

Ashley Lively, a Pittsburgh-based attorney representing Osuji, said, in her five years of representing clients in the immigration process, she has never seen a larger cache of character reference letters pour into her office to support one person.

“This really is a miscarriage of justice,” Lively said Friday afternoon. “He seems to be everything that the American dream is. We’re hoping they’ll open his case based on their discretion. If they would exercise their discretion, he would be eligible to apply for a green card.”

Osuji first came to West Virginia in 2005 to study at the University of Charleston on a soccer scholarship. In 2010, the same year his student visa expired, he graduated magna cum laude with a double majoring in biology and chemistry.

He stayed in the country, even though his visa had expired. An immigration lawyer advised him he would probably be safe because Congress was considering a bill at the time that would have made it easier for him to become a legal citizen. Ponciano didn’t know what bill that could have been.

Now, Osuji coaches youth soccer in the Kanawha Valley, and he plays in the local adult league. He works as a tutor for Jamie Dickenson, helping high school kids with their advanced math and science classes and college students prepare for the medical school entrance exam.

He planned to go back to school in January at UC to become a physician’s assistant. A school official confirmed last week he was admitted into the program. Ponciano said her husband considered applying for another student visa because of his enrollment.

Ponciano said she fell in love with Osuji for his strength. She remembered how he would bike across Charleston as a student to get to class and to work, even in the dead of winter. She remembered how, before he got a scholarship to be on UC’s soccer team, he was homeless for a time.

When Osuji married Ponciano in May 2016, she petitioned the federal government to start the process for her husband to become a legal citizen. An immigrant from the Philippines, Ponciano already has a green card.

“I was told by one of the ICE officers that that’s one of the ways they found out,” Ponciano said.

With Osuji gone, Ponciano realized it would be difficult to care for her daughter and continue working full-time - all while paying for her husband’s legal defense. It isn’t just Osuji’s family in America that’s suffering. Each month, Osuji sends $500 or more to his elderly parents in Nigeria, and he pays for his younger brother’s college tuition there.

The couple always knew there was a chance he would be deported one day, so they made a plan. If he was sent back to Nigeria, their daughter - a legal U.S. citizen - would live with Ponciano’s mother in the Philippines, and Ponciano would stay in Charleston to work and save money. Then, in a few years, they would try to reunite in another country, like Canada or Australia.

“I know she’ll be well taken care of there with my parents, but what’s going to happen to my family?” Ponciano said. “We’re all going to be separated. We’ve been praying. A lot of people don’t believe in prayer, but it’s helped me to stay calm for her.”

Hours after Osuji was detained, Ponciano attended a small noon mass at the Blessed Sacrament Church. She and her husband had been going there for years - “we never miss church,” she said.

Members of the church jumped into action to try to help the family in any way they could. Some helped with babysitting, some helped pay the mounting legal expenses Ponciano has now that her husband’s income has stopped coming into the home. The parish - and other members of the community who know and love Osuji - are desperately trying to do anything they can to help him stay.

One member of the parish, Kay Margocee, decided to start cold-calling the Department of Homeland Security to see if there’s anything she could do to help. She was at the Friday mass when Ponciano first shared the news.

“I knew as soon as I saw her something was terribly wrong,” Margocee said. “During the prayers, she asked for a prayer for Michael, who had been arrested that morning … I was shocked. We were all shocked.”

Margocee and other members of the parish knew undocumented immigrants were being arrested across the country. But that felt like a distant problem, she said, something far away. ICE said that, by September, its arrests were up 43 percent from last year, according to a Washington Post report. The fastest growing group of people getting arrested, the report said, are people like Osuji, who have no criminal record.

“It doesn’t touch your heart until it’s someone that you know personally who is just snatched up, just literally snatched from their family. Just taken,” Margocee said. “It’s surreal. I can’t imagine how Michael feels right now. Jocelyn has the support of the parish, but Michael has nothing up there in Pennsylvania.”

Father John Finnell told every group gathering for mass that weekend the news. He told them he thought the deportation was wrong, that someone like Osuji shouldn’t be kicked out of the country but invited to stay. Some parishioners told Finnell they felt his comment was “uncomfortably political.”

“I agree that politics should not pollute a worship experience, especially in a careless or chronic kind of way,” Finnell said. “I was aware that I was crossing a boundary, so I did so very consciously and only after some serious prayer and reflection. I believe there are some serious moral issues at stake here … I don’t think we can say we are pro-family and then tear people apart like this. It just doesn’t make any sense. There’s a larger evil that is lurking behind this arrest.”

Unlike parishes in larger cities, immigration can often feel like a distant issue for the members of Blessed Sacrament Church. One parishioner who legally immigrated years ago from Mexico told Finnell that, after Donald Trump was elected president, she started to carry her passport around to prove she’s an American citizen.

“This is teaching us a whole lot, and that’s part of the reason why I’m willing to kind of put the parish on the line here,” Finnell said. “We are going to learn something, and we are going to be a better, stronger, Christian community because of it.”


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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