Glenwood Springs residents hope to keep Henry Akim Gama from being deported to Zimbabwe
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Sam Irmen might not get to take that golf trip with his buddy Henry Akim Gama, who’s locked up and facing deportation to his home country of Zimbabwe.
Golf, like his many friends, was one of the things Gama came to love in America.
“He absolutely fell in love with the game,” Irmen said. “He went out and got his own clubs. He practiced in the back yard. He talked about it all the time. … He never had an opportunity to do it growing up.”
Irmen has known Gama for about six years and used to be his roommate. A group of their friends talked about taking a golf trip to Mesquite, Nev., for years but never made it.
Gama’s friends, his former employer and a Glenwood Springs City Council member believe he was unfairly written off by the government for missing a court date and has never been given a chance to present his case for asylum in the U.S. They say Gama played by the rules, worked and paid taxes. Friends found it ironic that it was his effort to gain asylum ” albeit late and imperfectly done ” that led to his arrest.
They fear his deportation to a country rife with political turmoil would amount to a possible death sentence. Gama’s father was reportedly killed after Gama fled to the U.S. in 2000, and government agents are said to have asked where Gama was during his mother’s funeral last February. Gama was an active member of the opposition party.
Irmen said Akim is facing one of the greatest injustices he’s seen in his life. He believes people who come to the U.S. illegally and take advantage of the system are a greater drain on society than someone like Gama who’s a great person but didn’t get the technicalities right. He finds it strange to hear about a lack of resources to take care of illegal immigration problems, yet on a September morning, eight armed Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents surrounded his house looking for Gama.
“The entire human element has been taken out of things,” Irmen said. “We don’t care about the individual. We just care about what the paperwork says. To me that doesn’t make any sense.”
Many friends have echoed Irmen’s comments that being deported for missing a court date, apparently inadvertently, seems unfair. A fundraiser at Rivers Restaurant, where Gama waited tables, netted about $8,000. Almost all of that was spent on legal fees.
“I met him working at Rivers and he’s just been part of the family ever since,” said Sheila Davis. “My kids adore him and love him. … He has a great sense of humor, easygoing. He would do anything in the world for you.”
His friends say Gama could be deported any day from a detention facility in Aurora. Phone messages to Gama at the facility haven’t been returned.
City Councilor Dave Sturges, Gama’s former employer, Anita Wan, and others have made noise to elected officials in hopes of helping Gama.
Sturges said he’s directing people to contact U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar’s Denver office to get Gama help. Four people told him they’ve contacted the office, and many others planned to, he said. Sturges is a friend of Gama’s and worked as an attorney for around 30 years.
“A lot of people have written letters,” Wan said. “I know we’ve appealed to the congressmen.”
She was unsure what effect letters have, but said they have been attached to a legal motion to appeal Gama’s deportation orders. U.S. Rep. John Salazar’s office responded in a letter that Salazar, D-Manassa, can’t impede on legal proceedings, Wan said.
“It’s kind of difficult to get congressmen involved because it’s a legal matter and they don’t really want to get involved in legal matters,” she said.
Sturges said the office of Ken Salazar, D-Colo., sent a release form Jan. 18 for Gama to sign. It says Salazar must receive Gama’s permission in writing before making any inquiry.
“I think that they’re getting phone calls and hopefully e-mails from people saying, ‘We want you to look into this,'” Sturges said.
Sen. Salazar’s press secretary, Stephanie Valencia, said, “At this point, because he didn’t follow procedure in the application for asylum and didn’t show up for his hearing, there’s not much recourse the senator’s office can do.”
Gama failed to follow the rules in the government’s eyes.
According to ICE spokesperson Carl Rusnok, Gama entered the U.S. in 2000 as an exchange visitor, which allowed him to be here legally until 2002. Gama applied for immigration benefits in 2004 and was denied by a federal judge. ICE issued a notice to appear at immigration court in August 2006. Gama missed it and the judge ordered him removed. ICE arrested Gama in September, Rusnok said.
“That’s routinely what happens with cases where people miss court dates,” Rusnok said. “In an immigration hearing, if somebody is scheduled and so many people fail to appear to these hearings, the judges usually place them in final orders of deportation.”
In August, an immigration judge denied a motion to reopen Gama’s case.
Denver Immigration Court administrator Alec Revelle said Gama’s previous attorney was sent advance notice of the hearing Gama missed, and “it is our position that the attorney is responsible for ensuring that the client knows what the hearing date is.”
Immigrants are supposed to file for asylum within one year of entering the country, and if that can’t be done, they must show a good reason why they were delayed, said Phil Alterman, an immigration attorney in Denver not connected with the case.
“You’ve got to show that you’ve got a reasonable reason for the delay, and that’s often a high hurdle to cross,” he said.
Gama’s current attorney, Mark Barr, didn’t return phone messages.
Sturges said Gama’s never gotten a chance to present his case and explain why he filed for asylum late. Wan said Gama didn’t know he had to file for asylum within a year of arriving.
An appeal to the Board of Immigration appeals is probably Gama’s last chance to avoid deportation. Legal briefs arguing the matter must be filed by Feb. 1.
Sturges said Gama has a strong legal case for asylum. Gama’s previous attorney didn’t confirm the court date, he added, and then filed a three-sentence failed motion to reopen the case. A grievance was filed against the previous attorney, and the current motion to appeal includes arguments about the attorney’s incompetent work, Sturges said.
“Generally it’s considered difficult to get a decision overturned, but it’s very fact-specific,” Alterman said.
He said no one would likely get a break for just forgetting about the court date, but if it can be shown Gama didn’t get the hearing notice and it was his previous attorney’s fault, the Board of Immigration Appeals may overturn the decision.
The Lichter and Associates law firm working on Gama’s case is good and generally only accepts cases that have merit, Alterman said.
Friends say Gama is a fairly private person who doesn’t like to ask for help. Maybe his immigration troubles could have been avoided had he asked for help and found better legal advice in the early stages.
“He didn’t ask for help,” Sturges said. “That’s my only criticism of him.”
Contact Pete Fowler: 384-9121
Post Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO
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