When Ola Osaze left Nigeria at age 15, one of his first sights in America was a sign at the Greensboro, North Carolina, airport.
“Beware of Nigerian drug smugglers.”
It was 1991, and the Port Harcourt-born teenager was shaken by the warning, displayed in the colors of the Nigerian flag: “I was like, ‘Mom, I thought this was supposed to be the land of freedom and liberation, the streets flowing with milk and honey.’” It was the first moment Osaze, who came to the US for school, realized America would not be welcoming to Black migrants.
But after he came out as queer and trans, returning to his birthplace was not a safe option, either. So he overstayed his visa, became undocumented, and, after a long struggle, was granted asylum. Now in Texas, he defends other migrants as the director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project.
In the latest installment of the Guardian’s series on trans activists at the forefront of protest movements, we talked to Osaze, 44, about the election, the #EndSars campaign and the long fight to abolish US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice).
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you remember your first impressions of the US?
I’ll never forget my introduction to America. We did not know what we were walking into. In my 15-year-old mind, I was just shocked to see this sign telling people to watch out for smugglers from the exact Nigerian airport we had just flown out of. It was an immediate wake-up call about all these myths about America. And then we had the really dehumanizing experience of going through customs, being searched, our things tossed on the floor, the disgust of the customs officers, all the invasive questions – what is this food stuff that smells weird? Those hours at the airport were an introduction to what life was going to be like as a Black migrant in the US. And there have been so many replications of those experiences over the last three decades.
Can you tell me a bit about the country you were leaving behind?
In much of my 15 years in Nigeria, we had been under one military dictatorship or another, stemming back to the civil war, which happened not too long after we gained independence from the British. So we were faced with lots of uprisings, instability, unemployment, schools closed down for indeterminate periods, no accountability in terms of government structures, police and military abuse. That was just so common. It sounds very familiar to the US. My parents had class privilege and were able to send us abroad to finish our schooling.
What we are seeing in Nigeria is very reminiscent of the reality of police violence here in the US
Nigeria is currently experiencing revolutionary protests against police. What’s your understanding of the situation?
For years, people have been fighting and resisting police and military violence in Nigeria. This latest iteration of resistance is against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars) set up to supposedly combat robberies and crime, but instead has been harassing, extorting and killing Nigerians, especially young people, LGBTQ+ people and others. After three weeks of revolutionary protests, the government decided to disband Sars. But by disbanding they meant they would reshuffle Sars officers to other units and set up a whole new unit. Nigerians want the whole policing system to be overhauled and abolished. But the president has no interest and has been more focused on violently repressing the uprising. Soldiers have killed at least 56 people, according to Amnesty, and injured many more. This in a country where public healthcare is virtually absent, leaving many injured protesters with no access to care.
Have you had direct encounters with Sars? What does this moment mean to Nigerian Americans?
When I visited Nigeria in 2018, I was part of a group of folks who were detained at a police station. They looked through our phones and laptops, harassed us and demanded bribes. I’m part of a network in the US of queer and trans Nigerians fundraising to support communities on the ground – and most of us have experienced Sars first-hand. Some of us were beaten by Sars officers on more than one occasion. What we are seeing in Nigeria is very reminiscent of the reality of police violence here in the US. The roots of police in the US in slave patrols are very similar to the setup of police in Nigeria, which was part of the colonial infrastructure to repress, control and punish. There is a long history of Pan-Africanism – of Black people in the US connecting our struggles to independence struggles of Black people in Africa and throughout the diaspora. The #EndSars movement provides an incredible opportunity to bridge the resistance efforts happening in Nigeria and the US.
What do you think is the biggest surprise for Black LGBTQ+ migrants when they arrive in America?
When Black queer and trans migrants come here or are finally released from detention, there is always an eye-opening moment when they realize the struggle is far from over. They see just how bad the conditions are here for Black people and LGBTQ+ people. That some of what they left behind in their home countries very much exists here – the fear of being killed if you’re a Black trans woman, the struggle to access housing, the struggle to find a way to make money, the level of racism here and how that stands in the way of survival. Folks realize how vulnerable they are to coming into contact with the police and ending back in detention, or being deported. Asylum seekers we work with are just not able to access the things they need to survive. Under Trump, the best-case scenario for my community is we are criminalized, caged and deported. The worst-case scenario is we’re killed.
Your asylum process happened before the Trump era – how was that?
I’m lucky that the many years I spent undocumented were not under this current administration, and there were ways I could survive. But there were still so many barriers – being unable to legally work, not having any semblance of healthcare access, and then dealing with the alienation and ostracization of being queer and trans, and facing family and community rejection. Ultimately, I made the decision to use asylum as a way to begin to build a life here that was not in the shadows. It was about being able to survive. I started the process in 2006, and it was incredibly hard. If you’re “lucky” and you’re not in detention and sitting in front of an asylum officer, you have to retell some of the most horrific experiences of your life. You’re frazzled and emotional and if you manage to misspeak, you could lose everything right there. Having to prove who you are, your sexuality, your gender identity, it’s just so dehumanizing.
Everyone before me was 'asylum denied'. When mine was granted, I almost fainted
And then there’s the decision. You’re sitting in a room packed with all these Black and brown families for hours. The officer tells you the decision for everyone to hear. There are scared little kids in the room. Everyone before me was “asylum denied”. When mine was granted, I almost fainted. I thought I had no chance. That day reminded me of the horrific reality of this country.
It’s harder to get attorneys, harder to raise money for bond, harder to get visits. And there is a whole fabric of violence that happens in detention. The forced sterilization of Black and brown women is one horrible example. Folks die in custody under so-called “medical neglect”, but it’s not “neglect” if it’s a purposeful action on the part of immigration enforcement. Queer and trans migrants are stuck in solitary confinement for months. We’ve been fighting for Sza Sza, a Jamaican trans woman and asylum seeker who was in detention for years, until she was finally released this week. During Covid, she was stuck there without hand sanitizer or basic supplies as people around her tested positive. Visitation is not possible right now, so people are even more isolated. There are more human rights violations. Cases are taking longer than usual and folks are still having to fight to get out. Even in cases where they’ve been granted bond by a judge, Ice still refuses to release them.
Everyone is so focused on voting now, of course, but how do you think people should be engaged beyond the election?
Joe Biden has not promised what we need to see; he hasn’t promised the shrinking or defunding of the police and immigration enforcement infrastructure that are necessary. So for the folks out there who are really centering my communities in their heart and work, the question is what are you doing at the state and local level to really affirm our lives? What are you doing to support the local movements to defund the police, abolish Ice, protecting the lives of Black trans folks, of LGBTQ+ people more broadly? We have to remember there are so many ways in which Black and brown folks and migrants are disenfranchised, because of their immigration status or their incarceration. I’m someone who has been here almost 30 years, and I just got the right to vote two years ago. This is my first presidential election.
“Abolish Ice” became a popular slogan a few years ago. How do you actually make that happen?
There are many ways this can happen. You have to center communities that are super marginalized – Black migrants generally, and Black queer and trans migrants in particular. And we have to pressure elected officials to make shutting down detention centers and abolishing Ice a primary mandate. We can’t let them off the hook and allow Ice carte blanche to do whatever it wants. Coalition-building is really key for the migrant justice movement. The movement hasn’t always been a space where Black lives do matter, or where Black leadership is valued. We have to tackle anti-Blackness in the movement. On our messaging, we need more folks in this country to see abolishing Ice as necessary. And I think a lot of that is happening, because “abolish the police” is now a phrase that is popular, and more people understand it is the only way to deal with state violence.