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Drug Informant Fights Deportation

ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. A Nigerian immigrant here facing deportation says he's going to be tortured and killed if he is, in fact, sent back home. Frank Enwonwu was caught smuggling heroin 22 years ago. Since then he's lived the dangerous life of an informant for federal drug authorities.

COHEN: He claims part of the deal was a promise from the feds to allow him to stay in the U.S. and escape revenge from the Nigerian drug dealers he earlier ratted out. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: Frank Enwonwu is the first to tell you he made a bad mistake. In 1986, he says he was tricked by a Nigerian military officer into smuggling five ounces of heroin into the U.S. When U.S. drug authorities offered him a deal, Enwonwu says he leapt at the chance.

Mr. FRANK ENWONWU: It was like a miracle for me because this DEA officer, in stead of taking me to jail to prosecute me, offers me an opportunity to redeem myself.

SMITH: Enwonwu worked as an informant for about a year, helping authorities nab higher-ups in the drug world and building a new life in America, driving taxis in Boston and studying nursing. But a decade later, after Congress passed a retroactive law making immigrants deportable for drug crimes, Enwonwu was suddenly arrested and detained. He spent the next 11 years fighting a deportation order that he says amounts to a death sentence.

Mr. ENWONWU: If I get into Nigeria today, I have at least 50 other people looking for me. I will get killed in there. You cannot play with my life as human. That's not the deal we made the first day. They promised me protection. I trusted them. But they used me and threw me away like trash.

SMITH: Enwonwu took his case to an Immigration Agency judge and won, but then lost to a panel of appeals judges who didn't believe that Enwonwu was facing torture back home.

Professor STEPHEN H. LEGOMSKY (Washington University): I have to say in all candor this it's difficult for me to see how they could reach that conclusion.

SMITH: Professor Stephen Legomsky is an immigration law expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

Prof. LEGOMSKY: I think it was probably part political, in the ideological sense, and partly just sloppiness.

SMITH: Enwonwu appealed to Federal Court, but his bad luck, just as the judge was about to rule in his favor, Congress stripped district courts of their power to decide immigration cases, and limited assess to appeals courts. The judge was livid at Congress and at the Administrative Appeals Board for throwing Enwonwu, quote, "back into the snake pit." Again, Steven Legomsky.

Prof. LEGOMSKY: It's very unusual for courts to be quite so scathing in talking about an administrative agency but as happens now in many different courts around the U.S. But because the courts' powers are so limited, there's very little that the court can do.

SMITH: Immigration officials declined to comment except to say that Enwonwu had his day in court, and they have to enforce his deportation order. But Herbert Lemmon(ph), the DEA agent who Enwonwu used to work with, says had he never promised Enwonwu permanent residency, and he feels little sympathy for him now.

Mr. HERBERT LEMMON (DEA): Let's not make a saint out of this guy. He, with all due respect to Mr. Enwonwu, he had heroin on him that he was smuggling into this country, and that the law calls for deportation, and that's the law of the land.

SMITH: A former immigration official and now Temple University Law School professor, Jan Ting agrees, Enwonwu's case is neither the most heart-rending nor deserving one out there.

Prof. TING: Everyone who makes an asylum claim in the United States is basically saying the same thing. If you return me to my home country, I'm dead. And you know what? Criminal aliens who come here and violate laws are not a priority for us.

Mr. ENWONWU: You have homework today?

BRIAN: No, no homework.

Mr. ENWONWU: (Unintelligible)

BRIAN: (Unintelligible) steak.

Mr. ENWONWU: Steak?

SMITH: Enwonwu has sole custody of his 13-year-old son, Brian, who lives with him now in a homeless shelter. Having exhausted most of his legal options, Enwonwu is making his case to an international human rights court. With tears rolling down his face, Enwonwu says he's already paid for his crime.

Mr. ENWONWU: I've been in about 11 jails, locked up for about six years. It's been hell. I made a mistake. And I atoned for the mistake. And they still want to end my life. Come on. That is not fair.

SMITH: Sitting next to him, 13-year-old Brian shows more anger than tears.

BRIAN: I see people on TV who go commit worse cases like this, and you know, they serve time and they get out. And if my dad, if they deport him, I will be an orphan. I have no one to turn around to. It's destroying not only his life, but it's destroying my life.

SMITH: Enwonwu's also asking Congress for help. But as one observer put it, he looks bad on paper, and it's doubtful he'll get anyone behind a bill to spare an immigrant drug smuggler this election year.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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