For many Gambians and other immigrants whose legal status in the United States remains unresolved, the uncertainly of staying in ‘God’s own country’ in recent months is turning into an enervating nightmare thanks to the rash of deportations that had come to define the immigration policy of the White House since last year.
Since the mercurial Donald Trump moved into the White House, scores of undocumented immigrants have been unceremoniously bundled out of the country, leaving them feeling dejected and hard done by.
Many of them have been sent back to their countries of origin, separating them from mostly young families and businesses which had supplied the flourish for the full flowering of their American dreams.
Members of the Gambian community spread across the US many of whom fled political persecution from their country during Yahya Jammeh’s repressive rule feel they are walking on a field of eggs.
This feeling of apprehension became pervasive after 45 of their hapless compatriots were deported to the West African country last month with a threat to ferret more out of America in the intervening few weeks.
They were sent home despite living in the US for decades, some of them without any record of criminality or brush with the law.
The U.S. State Department had announced that visa restrictions imposed on The Gambia will be lifted, after Banjul took steps to ensure its citizens ordered to leave the United States are re-admitted by the new government under President Adama Barrow.
Since then many Gambians and other immigrants from other African countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ghana have been living on edge, some playing hide and seek with immigration authorities while others taking other drastic measures such as crossing the border into Canada - all to avoid being returned to their countries of orgin against their wish.
They dread the implications of being whisked away to their countries which some of them had not visited since relocating to the US decades ago.
Washington is at pains to emphasise that those being deported have a history of felony while living in the country and had exhausted all legal avenues to continue to stay in the United States after they were detained.
One Gambian deportee who was not so lucky to be availed the alternatives at the disposal of those whose fates still hang in the balance, told a local TV talk show in Gambia that the government in Banjul had received $40 million in return for accepting them.
His claim although not independently verified had inevitably led to suspicion from many quarters in a country where a disenchanted population readily blamed the government for exchanging its own citizens for money.
Nanama Keitaa, Gambian American forced into exiled about five years ago when Gambia was under repressive rule appeared reluctant to open up on the thorny subject.
“I didn’t want to comment on this deportation issue out of respect for the deportees and knowing what some of them must be going through right now”.
The Americans had found Jammeh an unwilling partner to facilitate the deportations after his government refused to grant travel documents to would-be deportees from the U.S.
For Keita, Jammeh’s position on the issue was not in any way meant to back his compatriots facing deportation after exhausting all legal processes to remain in the United States.
“Instead Jammeh’s decision was a calculated political move. He was presiding over an already angry citizenry under oppression, and he very well knew that adding to their number several hundred, frustrated deportees from overseas would only threaten his tight grip on power” Keita said.
America’s move to only impose visa restrictions on Gambia government officials in response to Jammeh’s intransigence was the first step in its drive to secure compliance.
The Americans would have gone the whole hog to withhold visas from the entire Gambian citizenry if Banjul continued to refuse to take the deportees.
Speaking under condition of anonymity a Gambian asylum seeker who is currently under removal order after failing in her bid to remain in the US legally expressed dismay.
She claimed she was forced to undergo female genital mutilation against her will while living in The Gambia and does not want to return to her country of birth and live through the consequences of her alleged abuse.
“I provided all kind evidence to prove that I was circumcised and forced to marry someone I never loved, now that I am under removal proceeding my last hope is the immigration courts and if I fail my life is going to be disastrous” she said in a forlorn voice.
But despite the sense of recriminations, some Gambians have blamed the situation of migrants in US on negligence as far as regularizing their stay in the country is concerned.
One who identified himself as Lamin said Gambian immigrants should endeavor and regulate their status before the legal clock to stay in the country winds up on them.
“Being legal is an important aspect of an immigrant’s life in a foreign country” he said.
He joined many Gambians in blaming the government for not standing firm enough in the interest of its citizens when negotiating with the US over the issue of their deportation, knowing they cannot provide employment for all of the returnees.
Modou C Cham National Youth Mobiliser of the opposition Gambia Democratic Congress in The Gambia said the Barrow administration should come clean on this vexed question of the deportees.
“No matter what happens, the Gambia government should have found another solution to the problems faced by Gambian immigrants in America, Europe or anywhere else, instead of accepting deportations” he emphasized.
Although Foreign minister, Ousainou Darboe had claimed that the government does not have anything to do with the deportations, the US ambassador in Banjul shot down this claim of innocence.
Ambassador Patricia Alsup said no money was exchanged between the governments of The Gambia and the United States over the deportations but seemingly challenged Darboe’s assertion.
“Well in advance, the United States Government advised the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the charter flight that garnered recent attention, and the Gambian government authorized the flight’s landing clearance and arranged for the appropriate personnel to be on hand for its arrival” Alsup said.
Although the date for the next batch of deportees to The Gambia is up for speculation, the controversy surrounding their eventual return is sure to continue well after the plane bringing them home had landed at the Banjul International Airport.
By Buya Jammeh in New York