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In US Since Age 10, But No Dream Act for Young Activist Who Helps Others

In the US since she was 10, Dede has worked to address youth violence and access to resources for people returning home from prison, starting several nonprofits. She is also facing deportation.

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Giday “Dede” Adhanom is a mother of three living in Seattle. She has worked with the Youth Violence Prevention Network to address youth violence in Seattle. Through AmeriCorps, she has worked with Village of Hope to support people returning home from prison to gain access to housing, employment and other needed resources. When King County proposed rebuilding and expanding a juvenile prison in Seattle, Dede started No New Juvie, a grassroots group that fought the expansion, arguing that a youth prison does not address underlying issues such as underfunded schools, lack of employment opportunities, poverty and racism. She is also a founding member of Seattle Foreclosure Fighters, a community group of Seattle residents fighting to prevent foreclosures.

She is also facing deportation.

In 1993, 10-year-old Dede came to the United States with her older sister, her brother-in-law and their children. Seven years earlier, the family had fled war-torn Ethiopia, where Dede’s parents had been killed. They were granted permanent residency under the 1980 Refugee Act and settled in Seattle. Dede has no memories of Ethiopia, its culture or its language.

Three years later, in 1996, Dede was removed from her sister’s home and placed in foster care. In a recent interview with Truthout, Dede explained that, rather than working toward reuniting the family, the foster care agency severed all ties between Dede and her sister.

At 18, Dede aged-out of the foster care system and was expected to take care of herself. Dede described the process as “overwhelming. You don’t even know where to begin. Being on your own, there’s so much responsibility. It’s a frustrating process. If you have a question, you’re told, ‘You’re not supposed to ask this. You’re 18. You have to figure it out.’ There are few programs to help. It’s bigger than one resource. That [resource] might help me get from A to B, but B to C might be more complicated.

“I tried to live on my own, but that didn’t work out because I couldn’t pay the rent. I ended up sleeping in cars, then came back to Dixie’s,” she recalled, referring to her foster mother’s home.

In 2002, 19-year-old Dede was caught selling $20 of crack cocaine. Because it was her first time in trouble with the law, she took her case to trial. In 2005, she was convicted for controlled substance delivery and sentenced to nine months in a work-release center. She served six months and was released to begin rebuilding her life.

Nearly 10 years earlier, in 1996, then-President Bill Clinton passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act (IIRRA) and the Anti-Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The AEDPA expanded the category of “aggravated felony,” which subjected a convict to deportation. The acts also removed an immigration judge’s ability to consider factors in each individual case, such as family relationships, community ties or the severity of the offense. “Before 1996, an immigration judge could look at non-aggravated felonies and exercise discretion” about proceeding with detention or deportation, said Emily Tucker, director of policy and advocacy at Detention Watch Network, a national coalition advocating reform of the US immigration detention and deportation system, in a recent phone interview with Truthout. “Not many crimes were considered aggravated felonies before 1996.”

These acts dramatically increased the number of immigrants in detention: In 1994, the average daily population in immigrant detention was 5,532. By 2001, that number had more than tripled to an average daily of 13,210. In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General estimated that 627,000 immigrants would enter state prisons and local jails while 25,000 more would enter the federal prison system the following year. In addition, these acts applied retroactively. So, even if Dede’s conviction had occurred before 1996, she would still face deportation.

Dede’s conviction is considered an aggravated felony by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). However, in 2005, Seattle had not yet adopted Secure Communities, which requires police departments to send the fingerprints of all those arrested to ICE, allowing the agency to easily identify and place a hold on a prisoner. Upon release from jail or prison, that person may be placed in immigrant detention.

Had Dede been sent to immigrant detention to battle deportation, she may have been placed in the Northwest Detention Center (or NDC) in neighboring Tacoma. Opened in 2004 and run by the GEO Group, the 1000-bed facility has drawn widespread criticism for its egregious conditions and abuse of detainees. In 2008, the Seattle University School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic released a report outlining the numerous human rights violations at NDC, including:

  • Pressure on detainees to sign papers, including voluntary removal orders, whether they understood them or not.
  • Verbal and physical abuse by staff
  • Sexual harassment
  • Strip searches
  • Inadequate and sometimes life-threatening medical care
  • Excessive use of solitary confinement
  • Insufficient and/or rotten food
  • Lack of interpreters
  • Lack of access to their attorneys

These conditions are not unique to NDC. In November 2012, Detention Watch Network released a report on 10 of the worst immigrant detention centers in the country. In its executive summary, the group notes, “There is no facility among the approximately 250 in operation . . . where ICE reliably protects those inside from physical and sexual abuse, assures basic medical care, provides adequate nutrition and exercise and allows sufficient access to the outside world so that immigrants can prepare their legal cases and preserve their families.”

Had ICE placed a hold on her, Dede may have not ended up in NDC, even though it is the closest facility to Seattle. People in immigrant detention can be placed in any of the jails, prisons or detention centers across the United States, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles from their families, communities and legal representation. In 2006, the Seattle Times reported on the transfer of people from NDC to jails and prisons in other states as the Department of Homeland Security increased efforts to detain and deport immigrants.

In 2005, however, Seattle had yet to adopt Secure Communities, enabling Dede to finish her sentence, pay her legal fees and avoid detention. In July 2006, she gave birth to her first daughter. Months later, she received a letter from the US Board of Immigration Appeals mandating her to appear for a deportation hearing. The letter advised her to bring a lawyer.

In 2007, an immigration judge ruled in Dede’s favor. The board appealed the decision and, in 2012, reopened her case.

In 2011, Dede was granted a pardon by Washington Governor Christine Gregoire. However, the pardon does not end the deportation case. “Unless it’s based on finding that the person was actually innocent of the crime, a pardon doesn’t impact deportation, which is a collateral consequence of the conviction,” Tucker explained. “One of the big lies is that detention/deportation is a civil penalty, not a punishment, and so the pardon isn’t relevant.”

Recognizing that her case is not exceptional, Dede started a group called Who You Callin’ Illegal to address the intersections between incarceration and immigration, mass deportation, and the coordination between ICE and the Seattle Police Department. Days before Dede’s first hearing, the group held a public forum to address these issues while mobilizing support for Dede. That sunny Saturday afternoon, over 150 people showed up.

“It’s Bigger Than Just Me”

Dede’s case illustrates the growing intersections between incarceration and immigration. Deportations have reached record highs under the Obama administration, rising from 291,000 in 2007 to nearly 397,000 in 2011. Of these, nearly half have had past criminal convictions.

Although immigrant rights and advocacy groups have spoken out about the record number of people facing deportation, many of the discussions are framed around the concept of “good immigrants” vs. “bad immigrants.” “Good immigrants” are those who have never broken the law (or who have never been arrested for doing so). In contrast, many groups remain silent about immigrants facing deportation because of criminal convictions.

Andalusia Soloff is the communications coordinator for Families for Freedom, which works with people facing deportation and their families. In a phone interview with Truthout she noted, “Over the past four years, people are willing to accept any type of reform since immigration policies have been so horrible. Immigrants who have criminal convictions are the easiest to bargain off.” As communications coordinator, Soloff handles calls from the media. “They always want an immigrant without criminal convictions, a perfect human interest story that will win public sympathy. They don’t think that their editors – or the public – will want a story about someone who has a conviction.”

In a separate interview, Donald Anthonyson, an organizer with Families for Freedom, notes that many of the women with whom the group works are detained for minor criminal charges. “The criminal system has already punished them. Detention and deportation is punishing them again. No criminal statute has deportation as a penalty. We need to stop trying to make immigrants into criminals.” Noting that citizens with criminal convictions are able to continue living in the United States, he adds, “We’re not being deported because we’re criminals; we’re being deported because we’re immigrants. Because someone is an immigrant, they’re exiled despite their family ties, their economic status, etc.”

On June 15, 2012, President Obama signed an executive order protecting youth from deportation. The order follows the binary of “good immigrant” vs. “bad immigrant” and excludes those who have felony records. Thus, although Dede is under 30 and has a history of community organizing, her felony conviction excludes her from this protection.

“A person who has lost [immigration] status because of a criminal conviction is seen as the bogeyman in society,” Tucker stated. In response, Detention Watch Network has increasingly linked issues in the criminal justice and immigration systems, such as the racial disparities of both. “It’s important to challenge the idea of who the people are whom ICE has labeled as ‘criminal aliens.’ “

By sharing her story, Dede is doing just that. But it’s not an easy process. “It took me a long time to talk about my story. I had to work up the confidence to tell my story, but I want to educate people about the ways incarceration and deportation connect,” she acknowledged. “Poor people and people of color are displaced and incarcerated at a higher rate than other people. This process comes out in different ways, through mass incarceration and mass deportation, but the larger issues connect us all. Even in the process of dealing with immigration and raising children, I’m still going through it. I’ve done A, B and C and it doesn’t make a difference.”

For immediate action, Dede’s supporters have started a petition on the site, asking that the Board of Immigration Appeals and Judge Edward Kandler to stop deportation proceedings:

To become involved in supporting her case, contact Who You Callin’ Illegal at [email protected] or 206-666-8281.

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