"I love America.”
Lutalo said this with conviction as he sat wearily in the corner of a noisy coffee shop in Los Osos. A neatly dressed man with graying temples, Lutalo was there to meet with a reporter and tell the story of his American experience.
Lutalo’s greatest fear is that the U.S. government will send him back to the country of his birth. Unlike many who share this fear, Lutalo is here legally and is married to an American citizen. According to the laws of this nation, he is entitled to live and work in this country. He has paid his taxes, obeyed the law, and conscientiously contributed to his adopted home like a productive citizen. He has played by all the rules.
But his American dream has become a nightmare.
Lutalo now hides in the bureaucratic shadows of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formally known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS) hoping authorities will ignore him until wise forces set things right.
“I never thought this could happen to anyone,” said Lutalo, who did not want his real name used. “That is why I want people to know about this. I am not the only one and people need to know.”
Lutalo was born to a peasant family in a small village in the deep back country of Uganda. He grew up with his eight brothers and sisters, eating the food their mother grew and brought in from the fields. He was the first in his family to get a college degree, coming to America to get his bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and finally to study for a doctorate. He returned to Africa after earning his graduate degree and worked for years coordinating international aid to the countryside.
The purpose of his education was to help the people of Africa, said Lutalo, people just like him except they never had the chance to escape from crushing poverty. He grew up without shoes, he explained, and he wants something better for the coming generations.
After returning to the United States to earn a doctorate, his status as a legal resident began to go awry.
He married a Ugandan woman in the United States in 2001 and applied for permanent residence. When she became a citizen in 2003 the USCIS told him that his application would be sent “straight to the top of the line” for a final immigration decision. Two years later, he and his wife went for an interview with an immigration agent—usually one of the last steps in getting residency. Upon arrival he learned the immigration service had lost his file.
“It was the first time I heard that story,” Lutalo said with a sigh. “And not the last.”
He was told not to worry about the misplaced file. The interview proceeded without it, and he was asked to call if he didn’t receive a response in four months. He never got a call. He called and kept calling every month for a year and was always told the same thing: The case was pending.
Soon Lutalo was offered a wonderful job; a position as a regional coordinator for West Africa for a charity in San Luis Obispo that raises money to build wells in rural villages. The charity had helped him put wells in his own village in Uganda. They knew his immigration situation and flew him to San Luis Obispo for an interview. He fell in love with the place at first sight.
“I was given a chance to do what I always wanted to do with my life,” said Lutalo of his new job. “I saw those beautiful mountains. I was so excited, let me tell you.”
Both the charity and Lutalo thought his permanent residency papers would be coming through at any moment. But the lost file incident made Lutalo very cautious; he made sure the immigration service knew exactly where he had moved. He both called and mailed the immigration service his new address and he received a call and mail acknowledging the government knew where he lived. He thought everything would be resolved without hitch.
The charity suggested he talk to the office of Lois Capps, his local Congresswoman for help. The immigration service told the Congresswoman’s office that a decision would be coming within 90 to 120 days. Lutalo didn’t hear from the agency.
In February of 2007, a friend accompanied him to see a clerk at the agency office in Los Angeles, where he was told everything seemed fine with his file but his fingerprints must be updated.
“You know my arms have never been cut off,” Lutalo told the clerk. “The fingers must be the same.” It didn’t matter. The fingerprints were recorded that day.
Finally, after years of silence from the government, Lutalo filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what happened to his file. The answer shocked him: His application had been canceled. It turned out the immigration service office had been sending documents to an old address. His case had been canceled because there was never any reply.
His lawyer told him he had three choices: file an appeal that could take three years to resolve, start all over again, or go back to Uganda where he would have to wait 15 years to return. His lawyer re-filed the application.
Finally, the immigration service sent a letter to Lutalo—to the right address this time—warning him he was going to be deported if he didn’t prove he had a good reason to stay. Though he was despondent, his lawyer said the letter actually was positive news; he could present his case before an immigration judge who could help unsnarl the tangle.
The hearing date finally came in June. Lutalo thought it might be a turning point: He was finally going to tell his story in person to a government official who might be able to help him. But the immigration service had once again lost his file. The judge rescheduled the hearing for January 6, 2010.
Lutalo is really worried now. His visa and driver’s license expired August 22. He was laid off at the end of last year and is running out of money. A friend offered to take him in but he feels he can’t accept the offer. He knows that changing his address could be a dangerous mistake.
Lutalo is tempted to go back to Uganda but he can’t stand the idea of leaving some of his children behind and never seeing them graduate from college or missing their weddings. One of his stepdaughters is serving in Iraq and he hopes to be here when she returns.
“If I did not have Jesus then I would not be here talking to you,” said Lutalo. “If I looked at a government to solve my problems, I would be doomed.”
An immigration service spokeswoman said she could not comment on Lutalo’s case because of privacy concerns, even if Lutalo were standing right in front of her and gave permission.
“Constantly following up should take care of the problem in a timely fashion,” said Sharon Rummery, a USCIS spokeswoman, after listening to some of the details of Lutalo’s story. “If he needs help, just have him call our 1-800 number or sign in on the website. We are here for people in many, many different ways.”
Lutalo has done all that and more. Considering the Kafkaesque reversals he’s endured, he could have easily soured on America, but he remains optimistic.
“America, that is the people, not the government,” he maintained. His eyes lit up when he spoke of the many Americans who have helped him and helped assist rural African villages. “That is what I call America—that is the people—that is not the government. America is going to be the same always and I have loved every bit of it.”
Contact Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.