19-year-old was arrested in January
Federal immigration officials in Boston are seeking to deport a man — who has posted online that he is gay — to a nation where same-sex relationships are illegal, just days after President Obama criticized a harsh new antigay law in Uganda.
Officials arrested the 19-year-old man from Ethiopia in January, shortly after he lost his student visa, and brought him before an immigration judge twice last month for deportation. It is unclear if his judge or jailers know that the man has posted to a public forum that he is gay. He also told at least two people who confirmed it to the Globe, saying they fear for his safety if he is deported.
“This is a very serious deal,” said the student’s uncle, who spoke on condition of anonymity from Canada. “Back in his country, it will be like death.”
Advocates for immigrants said the case illustrates the perils of the US immigration system, where immigrants are not assigned public defenders and are often forced to defend themselves in court. Federal officials say immigration officers ask detainees if they are afraid to go home, which could clear the way for them to apply for asylum, but lawyers say many foreigners are reluctant to confide in their jailers.
Ethiopia is among dozens of nations — 77 at last count — where it is a crime to be gay or lesbian, according to the United Nations. Almost half the nations that outlaw same-sex relationships are in Africa, where Amnesty International says penalties include prison time or even death.
In February, Uganda imposed up to life in prison for same-sex conduct, drawing rebuke from President Obama, who called the law “an affront and a danger to the gay community.” Weeks earlier, Nigeria also toughened its antigay laws. Afterward, according to media reports, a mob in Nigeria’s capital attacked men perceived as gay, and on Thursday an Islamic court in the north had four men publicly whipped for being gay.
In Ethiopia, according to the State Department, gay people have been jailed, interrogated, and allegedly abused, and many reported anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts. Amnesty International said gay people face up to 15 years in prison in that country for aggravated offenses.
The Globe spotted the man from Ethiopia in Boston immigration court last month, and is not identifying him because he could not be interviewed. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied requests for an interview with the man, pending a mental health review requested by an immigration judge.
Immigration and customs spokesman Daniel Modricker declined to comment on the case, except to say that the man is being held without bail. “An immigration judge will determine whether he is eligible to stay here or not,” Modricker said.
According to friends and his uncle, the slim 19-year-old arrived in the United States last September to study at a college in New Hampshire with hopes of going on to medical school.
But shortly after he arrived, his uncle said, the student stopped communicating with his parents, both conservative Christians. His uncle said the student lost weight at school, his behavior seemed erratic, and he believes the student was dismissed in January for poor grades. A college spokeswoman, citing privacy laws, would confirm only that the student left the school.
His uncle said the man had never told him that he is gay, but in November, the student posted in an online forum that he was gay and was looking for support from the college community.
And two people in Worcester who know the young man — Todd Williams, an openly gay Republican candidate for state senator, and his campaign manager, Mesfin Beshir, a nonprofit director from Ethiopia — said in separate interviews that the student recently told them he is gay.
Williams and Beshir said they met him shortly before his arrest in January, when he asked to stay with Beshir’s family during winter break.
“He’s openly gay . . . He blatantly told me, ‘I’m gay,’ ” Williams said in a telephone interview. “If he’s returned or deported to Ethiopia, I’m in fear of what may happen to him.”
Beshir said the man seemed to suffer emotional troubles, sometimes seeming irritated and shutting himself in the guest room. He said he worried for the man’s safety if forced to return to Ethiopia.
“Culturally, he will be an outcast,” said Beshir.
The man has been jailed for about two months without bail in Massachusetts; officials say he has no criminal record.
Twice last month, a Boston immigration judge offered to send the man back to Ethiopia.
“Do you want to voluntarily depart the United States?” Judge Paul Gagnon asked him at a Feb. 20 hearing.
The man, wearing arm and leg shackles and surrounded by sheriff’s deputies, answered after a long silence.
“First let me get an attorney and then I will respond,” he said.
A week later, the former student still did not have a lawyer — just a Suffolk University law student from the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project, a Boston legal nonprofit. The nonprofit has since decided to take his case and represent him in court.
At that hearing, Gagnon requested the mental health evaluation and said the man had been uncooperative in jail, complicating the case. The judge had given the man several chances to get a lawyer.
“We don’t really know a lot about him and it would be helpful if we did,” the judge told the law student.
But that did not stop the judge from again offering the young man the chance to leave the United States.
“Hopefully we can get you back home with your family if that’s what you want to do,” the judge said.
In Canada, the man’s uncle said he hoped the court would fully examine the case before sending his nephew away.
“It doesn’t really matter for me whether he’s gay, straight, or whatever. He is my nephew. I love him,” his uncle said.
But, he added, “If he is [gay]. He should be afraid.”