Rolly: Records mixup may send African woman back to war-ravaged country

By Paul Rolly

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: April 12, 2013 07:59AM
Updated: April 12, 2013 12:45PM
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Paul Rolly

Victoria Sethunya left her war-torn country of Lesotho 13 years ago and came to Utah on a student visa to study at Weber State University. Now, because of bureaucratic mix-ups, she faces deportation to her native land where she fears for her life.

The Mormon convert fled her country fraught with tribal wars after she had seen family members stabbed and her own life threatened. She came to Utah with the help of local LDS sponsors.

She studied English and chemistry at Weber State and, after she graduated, entered a master’s program, studying criminal justice. But as she neared the completion of that program and began preparing for a work visa to pursue a career in criminal forensics, her student status was abruptly canceled in 2006 and her enrollment for her final semester was revoked.

After initially being unable to find the reason for her canceled status, she was informed that she had not registered for a previous semester, which disqualified her under the foreign student program.

That was an error in the records. She had kept up her course work uninterrupted and maintained better than a 3.0 grade-point average.

She finally was able to get her school records from Weber State by requesting them through the state’s open records laws, but she was not allowed to re-register.

After picketing the school during its fall semester graduation exercises and soliciting the help of Utah’s congressional delegation, she was allowed to re-enter, and she graduated with her master’s degree in May 2007. She still, however, was formally out of immigration status, which apparently had been caused in the first place by a computer glitch.

Because she was out of status, she couldn’t apply for a program through the federal Student Exchange and Visitor Information System (SEVIS) that allows foreign students to work legally in the United States after they graduate.

She finally applied after she graduated, but she was told by SEVIS that it needs certain documentation from the school to process her application. She was unable to get that documentation. A spokesman for the school said at the time that Weber had tried to work with her, but she was uncooperative.

Her legal status in this country has been precarious ever since, and she has supported herself by selling her arts and crafts while trying to fight for the work program she has maintained all along she earned.

She was arrested by ICE officers in 2009 for overstaying her residency in the United States and was ordered by an immigration judge to be deported back to Lesotho, where she believes she will be killed.

She appealed the judge’s decision to the Immigration Bureau of Appeals, which has had the case for over a year and recently sent it back to the original immigration judge for adjudication.

A hearing has been scheduled before that judge next Thursday.

Meanwhile, an immigration attorney in Nebraska she had obtained to help with her case has recently been disbarred by the Nebraska State Bar, and she has had trouble retrieving all her immigration papers she had entrusted with him.

ICE took her passport when she was arrested in 2009, and it since has expired in the government’s custody. So she has been unable to get a new passport.

Sethunya filed a sexual assault claim with the Unified Police Department in 2010, and while the District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges because the likelihood of a conviction was questionable, the United Police Department has written a letter confirming its belief an assault took place and the victim was cooperative.

That brought the Victims Advocate Office of the Draper Police Department into the case. Its director, Seven Gardner, has been trying to help Sethunya stay in the country through a provision in the Violence Against Women’s Act that allows victims of violent crime to remain in the country for up to four years and apply for permanent status.

A psychologist has also written that Sethunya suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from what happened to her in Lesotho.

Immigration attorney Mark Williams has recently taken on her case and will represent her at the hearing. Williams hopes her status as a violent-crime victim will delay deportation and give him a chance to develop a case for continued legal status.

Meanwhile, Weber State just recently mailed to her the diploma she earned six years ago.

prolly@sltrib.com