Ashley O’Shay’s documentary Unapologetic follows the work of two young Black women who organize for Black political, economic and social liberation. The feature-length documentary premiered at the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia last summer.
Five floors up from the cacophony that is Chicago’s West Loop, inside a stone-still hearing room at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Chicago Immigration Court, where the ratcheted-up nerves and quickened breaths make for the sort of place you do not want to be, Uzoamaka Emeka Nzelibe ’96 is there to get the job done. An immigration lawyer, she is fighting to right a litany of wrongs, fighting for youth who’ve fled hellholes all across the globe, trekked thousands of miles and hurdled untold obstacles, running for their lives.
The words Nzelibe chooses couldn’t be starker — nor the consequences more dire. She locks eyes with the immigration judge. Her words at once pierce and amplify the chill in the room.
“What we’re deciding today is whether or not this kid is going to die,” begins the no-nonsense Nzelibe, a 43-year-old Nigerian-born clinical associate professor of law at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. As staff attorney with the Children and Family Justice Center of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, she represents unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, cases deemed the toughest legal challenges by agencies that turn their clients over to her. (Several organizations refer clients to the Bluhm Legal Clinic, including the National Immigration Justice Center in Chicago and children’s detention centers around the U.S.)
“You’ve got kids, 16, 17 or 18 years old, and they’re telling you they’re afraid, there’s this gang, and they’ll be killed if they’re sent home,” she says. “So if you send them back, you’re saying it’s OK. You’re saying there are right reasons to send them back, but we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are there right reasons to die?’ Because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re deciding here.”
It’s these questions — and these high stakes — that drive Nzelibe’s laser-focused quest.
In legal terms, what these young people seek — and what Nzelibe won’t give up on — is asylum.
Asylum — an extraordinary remedy of humanitarian relief for anyone fleeing persecution in countries that can’t or won’t protect them — is an incendiary flashpoint in this American political moment.
Legally it’s rooted in a matrix of laws inscribed in the wake of World War II, a code of high-minded protections to harbor the streams of post-Holocaust refugees — laws now at odds with the ongoing immigration crisis playing out primarily on the southern U.S. border, where xenophobia, shifting government policies and raw politics make for one tangled mess.
The immigration crisis has only gotten messier in recent years — and certainly since the summer of 2018 with asylum-seeking families separated as they crossed from Mexico into the United States. Infants and children have been housed in institutional or detention camps, and U.S. troops deployed to the border as Central America’s Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala — are increasingly under the siege of warring gangs that have hijacked the rule of law, inflicting codes of violence on the citizens of those countries.
Homicide rates in the Northern Triangle are among the highest in the world. Even a walk to school might be deadly, especially for teens — boys recruited as gang lookouts and drug runners, and girls coerced to become “gang girlfriends,” often before they’re 12.
Nzelibe, once a child immigrant herself, is the front line — and the lifeline — for those asylum-seeking teens and young adults, anywhere from 12 to 24 years old, who’ve ended up in or near Chicago and somehow found themselves sitting face-to-face with one inexhaustible lawyer determined to keep them safely — and legally — in America.
Nzelibe’s legal acumen is amplified by the resources of Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center, where Nzelibe helps guide students, faculty and a team of social workers toward one shared goal: to give these young immigrants a chance at the American promise of security, stability and whatever each kid defines as success.
Representing these immigrant youths is at the heart of the mission of the center, founded at the law school in 1992 with the hope of “bringing to Chicago the best practices in juvenile justice,” says Tom Geraghty ’69 JD, director emeritus of the Bluhm Legal Clinic and an internationally respected authority on juvenile justice.
Today Nzelibe and Amy Martin, the clinic’s immigration law fellow, work closely with second- and third-year law students, each of whom spends the semester taking on the nuts and bolts of building an immigration case, from client interviews to chasing down evidentiary documents to defending teens in court. A hallmark of the center’s immigration practice is its holistic attention paid to clients’ needs, whether a winter coat, a psychiatric evaluation or the birthday celebrations they’ve never had.
Immigration law — and asylum, in particular — has always been a complex corner of American jurisprudence, a labyrinth rooted in gradations of fear — “credible fear” versus “reasonable fear” — all calculated on degrees of violence, on persecution past or perceived. Its complexities have been compounded recently with policy clarifications by the Trump administration that blocked gang or domestic violence as valid justifications for seeking asylum.
Lately, Nzelibe has been focusing on what she considers a particularly vulnerable asylum population: “emerging adults” between 18 and 24 who on the day of their 18th birthdays are transferred to adult detention centers — county jails — and mixed in with people accused of serious crimes.
“Those cases are hard, mostly because they move quickly,” in weeks and months instead of years, Nzelibe says. “It takes a while to work up an asylum case. And what you need to remember is that everything that happened, everything you’re trying to document, happened in another country. Interviewing the client, getting documents, learning about the home country, it all takes time. You need to build rapport. And there are all these rules about when you can talk to clients and whether you can bring an interpreter. You can imagine how difficult it is.”
Not once in 14 years — not yet, anyway — has one of Nzelibe’s “kids” — for that’s what she tends to call her young clients, “my kids” — been sent back to his or her home country.
In ways life altering and barely noticed, she takes these young people on as if her own, driving hours to get them to doctor’s appointments, to sit down with school officials, to attend graduations and quinceañeras. Nzelibe’s desk drawer is full of baby pictures from her former clients, a testament to her impact on their lives. In fact, her benchmark for herself as an immigration lawyer, she says, is “to be the lawyer I would want for my own children [two boys, ages 6 and 10] if they were ever in trouble.”
She lies awake at night worrying, especially as deadlines and court hearings approach, ticking through her endless to-do lists, mentally reviewing her elaborate charts, with one unwavering goal: to give her clients their best imaginable day in court.
To understand how and why Nzelibe pushes to the lengths she does — routinely taking 1 a.m. Skype international calls, rising at 3 a.m. to connect with interpreters in one of the seven languages she’s had to navigate, devising end runs around bureaucracies that refuse to cough up necessary documents — you need to look to the summer of 1994, in the bustling city of Lagos, Nigeria, where Nzelibe once thought she might forever be caught in immigration’s inescapable stranglehold.
It was the summer after Nzelibe’s sophomore year in the McCormick School of Engineering; she was not yet 19, and she’d been in the United States since 1982, when she was almost 7, adopted along with two other siblings by her eldest sister, Ngozi Emeka Nchekwube, who was 22 and had married a young Nigerian doctor practicing in Indiana. (When Nzelibe was 2, her mother, only 37, died from a blood infection.)
While she was raising Nzelibe and her two older sisters, Nchekwube had three children of her own and went to law school full time. Nzelibe stationed herself at the basement computer, typing up her sister’s law school notes from stacks of yellow legal pads.
“In the same way I loved reading history as literature,” says Nzelibe, “I would read constitutional law and be like, ‘This is sooooo interesting.’ ”
She decided then and there that she’d become a lawyer but chose to study engineering at Northwestern because the preferred path in her immigrant family was a STEM field, where she’d always find a job. To this day, she says, it’s her engineering background that makes her see law as problems to be solved, a matter of “breaking down complex things into simpler terms.”
Her family’s dream had been that someday they’d return to their West African homeland. But Nigeria’s economic and political situation had begun to deteriorate in the ’90s, and Nchekwube decided that Nzelibe and her sisters needed to apply for permanent U.S. residency. To do so, they had to “touch ground” in Nigeria, a stay they figured might last a couple weeks.
At the end of her sophomore year, Nzelibe traveled to Lagos to complete the process for applying for permanent resident status.
But once back in Lagos, the short trip turned into a “nightmare,” according to Nchekwube — a monthslong drama during which a U.S. embassy employee quipped that the story of their mother’s dying and the older sister adopting her younger siblings was quite a tale, “one he’d never heard before.” And, Nzelibe recalls him adding: “Wherever your mother’s bones are, you need to go dig ’em up.”
She remembers crying every day, worrying that her long-held plan to take the law school admission test and start law school right after graduation might get waylaid. She also remembers Nchekwube saying over and over, “You’ve just got to get up, get moving. You cry, and when you’re done crying, you’ve just got to get up.”
By December of 1994, having missed just one quarter of study at the start of her junior year, Nzelibe finally made it back to the United States. “I remember when I got out of the car back home in Merrillville (Ind.), I kissed the ground,” she says. “I was like, ‘God bless America.’ ”
Back at Northwestern with a green card and the goal of on-time graduation, Nzelibe holed herself up in her room with her books, took classes straight through summer and met her goal, graduating in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering. She started at New York University School of Law in the fall of 1996, not yet 21.
Fast-forward to 2004, when Nzelibe found herself in Chicago, married to Jide Nzelibe, an American-born, Nigerian-raised professor of law at Northwestern. She’d been a litigation associate in Washington, D.C., and then Chicago, but the pull toward public-interest work prompted her to quit law firm practice.
A brainstorming lunch with the Bluhm Clinic’s Geraghty, who’d done plenty of work in Africa, led to his mid-lunch realization that Nzelibe might be just the person to fill in for the clinic’s immigration attorney, who was about to take maternity leave. Nzelibe was barely five years out of law school, and here was Geraghty asking if she’d ever thought of teaching.
“I didn’t realize this is exactly what I should be doing, but it is exactly what I should be doing,” Nzelibe recalls, in a recent interview.
That realization came as no surprise to Geraghty. “From the beginning, the work Uzo was focusing on was so compelling — children essentially trafficked to the U.S. and held in detention centers without access to counsel or, in many cases, family members. These were kids with no status, about to be deported.”
He goes on: “Our students needed to know about these issues, and we knew they’d be immersed in this work because of the compelling nature of the cases. Most recently, with Trump’s stands on immigration and children at the border, Uzo’s work has come front and center in terms of the juvenile justice work we’re doing at the center. She’s taken on a leadership role locally and nationally. Her work has afforded our students cutting-edge practice in the most compelling issues of the day.”
Her students concur.
“She’s an absolute game changer,” in an immigration quest “where the rules are always changing and the goal posts always moving,” says Lindsey Blum ’18 JD, now a first-year associate at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, who spent a year in Nzelibe’s immigration law clinic. “I’d walk into her office all the time, saying, ‘The world’s ending. I don’t know what we’re going to do. This case is impossible.’ And she’d say every time, ‘Let’s reframe it, because we’re going to make it work.’
“It got to the point that none of the cases kept me awake at night, because Professor Nzelibe would always say, ‘We’re going to solve this. No time to wring your hands.’ ”
It’s that same sense of unshakability that you hear echoed by Nzelibe’s clients, some of whom she’s worked with for more than a decade.
“She’s the best, best, best,” says Fredy, a Honduran-born former client, now 32, whose asylum case — Nzelibe’s longest to date — took 11 years before he was granted asylum and his green card.
When Nzelibe and her students realized Fredy had never celebrated a birthday, they set out to fix that, with instructions to pick the restaurant of his dreams. He settled on a $5 all-you-can-eat pizza joint in a far-flung suburb, and in classic Nzelibe fashion, professor and students drove an hour — with piñata and cake — to make for him an unforgettable first birthday celebration, some 19 years after he was born.
“She treated me like a mother [would], not like I was just another number,” says Fredy, who, since being detained at the southern border and coming to Chicago in 2004, has learned English, earned his GED, now drives a big rig and can’t wait to become a U.S. citizen in 2020. “I was scared every time in court. My past is my past, Uzo always told me,” he says of a history riddled with horrors he doesn’t like to dwell on. “She never gave up on me.”
The complexity of asylum cases and changing views on who should be able to apply present challenges to immigration lawyers like Nzelibe.
“I don’t think anyone contemplated children and women, especially, getting asylum,” she says. “I don’t think these were the folks people were thinking of post–World War II who would be our asylum seekers. But they are now, and our asylum law doesn’t fit.
“These women and children, fleeing persecution in the form of gang or domestic violence, don’t fit neatly into the asylum box, so oftentimes it’s trying to figure out a way to get them relief, trying to massage the law, to find a way the law can encapsulate their case. What they’re afraid of, what they’re fleeing is real: They will die. So our job is trying to figure out a way that the law would make it possible for them to stay safely in America.”
Nzelibe, the long-ago child immigrant, frames it like this: “When I read the Declaration of Independence, when I read the Constitution, I know my clients are the embodiment of those ideals. I see that in them. We need not fear that America is going to change because of immigrants. What I’m concerned with is that in our desperation to keep immigrants out, we actually change who we are. We lose the values, we become our worst nightmare. Our country can absorb these people, and the forefathers’ experiment, started centuries ago, it’s still working; we need not fear that it’s not going to work.”
Barbara Mahany ’82 MS is a Chicago journalist and author.