A migrant’s tale: Ugandan woman waited for the system, then died just as it became her chance to ask for asylum

Edith Tapia

Jamillah Nabunjo arrived in Juarez, Mexico, in April, after a long trek from the dangers that faced her in her home in Kampala, Uganda. After five months of waiting at the border in difficult conditions, Jamillah’s turn to walk up to the port of entry finally came up in mid-September.

Unfortunately, by then, she lay in a coma in a Mexican hospital. She died soon afterwards. Jamillah’s family now awaits the return of her body to Uganda for a funeral.

Targeted for her political beliefs and because she owned a small business, Jamillah arrived at the border to find a long, long wait for her turn to approach the U.S. port of entry to start her asylum request. As part of a practice known as metering, at best only a few people are admitted each day at the Juarez entry ports of entry. When Jamillah added her name to the list, her number was 12,636.

The 33-year-old mother of two young children still in Uganda prepared to wait. While in Juarez, Jamillah accumulated friends and supporters, drawn by her contagious smile and unceasing hope and optimism.

Over the next five months, Jamillah was plagued by health problems. For three months, state-provided health insurance allowed her to see doctors who tried to address her symptoms. When the insurance ran out, she was denied an extension. She managed to pull together the funds to see a doctor again, and was diagnosed with anemia. Her supporters in the immigrant aid community tried to advocate with Customs and Border Protection to allow her to enter the United States earlier than her designated number, but were unsuccessful.

By Sept. 10 she was so sick, she was hospitalized. One week later she lost consciousness. Ironically, it was the same week her number was called. Her time on the list was up. Unfortunately, so was her time with us. Jamillah died alone on Sept. 29, in an ICU room of a Juarez hospital, after three weeks in the hospital and one week of losing consciousness.

Jamillah had a serenity that inspired those around her. Even when sad, she never seemed to lose her positive attitude and faith. She was just 33, but her face betrayed the suffering that led her to her long journey to the U.S. border, after being subjected to political persecution and harassment as a business owner.

Besides her young son and infant daughter, Jamillah is survived by brothers, sisters and her mother. They describe her as their hope and their hero.

During her five months in Juarez, Jamillah lived at El Buen Pastor. This shelter has an official capacity of 60 people, but it regularly holds more than 130. Along with about 20 other Africans, Jamillah only felt relatively safe there. Despite the pastor’s best efforts, African asylum seekers are isolated and face many challenges. None in her group spoke Spanish and they were easily identifiable as migrants. Many encountered race-based hostility as they tried to navigate the many Mexican bureaucratic systems.

Here at the border Jamilllah Nabunjo leaves behind a community of migrants and local folks who felt privileged to know her. She is sorely missed.

Jamillah had followed every instruction. She put her name on a list and waited patiently, with faith. She waited for five months to be processed by Customs and Border Protection, which has one of the largest agency budgets in the government. Yet it continues to insist it lacks the capacity to process asylum applicants more quickly.

This is the reality for thousands of asylum seekers from Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and from Mexico, too. Jamillah’s death may well have been caused at least in part by the metering practice that has been normalized by everyone, both the Mexican and U.S. governments and even advocates like me. Her death is on all of us.

We were not able to help her as much as we wanted to. What we can do still is help return her body to her family. The cost is steep, $14,000. We ask that you consider helping us help Jamillah get home. Through the support of CLINIC’s hosting site, we hope to raise the necessary funds.

We will forever remember Jamillah and we will honor her life and her unjust and unnecessary death. And we will continue to fight for the elimination of metering (of any kind), against the Remain in Mexico policy and will continue to uphold the right to seek asylum.

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Edith Tapia is a policy research analyst for the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, Texas.