Ruth Marimo is a thirty-one-year-old single, lesbian, African mother of two. While awaiting deportation almost two years ago, she began her incredible memoir, Freedom of an Illegal Immigrant.
Her story begins in Zimbabwe.
At five years old, she lost her mother to suicide, and her sibling died the same year.
She was raised by her mother’s relatives and lived with her aunt, who she calls “Mom,” most of that time.
In December of 1998, Marimo said she “was eighteen and trying to get out of there.” Zimbabwe’s economy and political climate were very bad at that time.
Since Zimbabwe had good relations with the United Kingdom, Marimo had initially planned to move to the UK. Marimo’s aunt also helped her get a visitor’s visa to the US.
Arrangements to stay with family in the UK weren’t what they had sounded like they would be.
Marimo then stayed with another aunt who “had a friend of a friend of a friend” in Omaha, Nebraska. In the summer of 1999, Marimo traveled to the US on her visitor’s visa. Again, the situation wasn’t what she had expected.
Marimo’s return ticket to the UK expired, and she got stuck here.
Marimo had help getting a driver’s license, etc. When she attempted to get her visitor’s visa converted to a student visa, however, she was told she’d have to go back to Zimbabwe first.
Six months after being here, her papers were no longer valid.
Not knowing what else to do, Marimo just kept working. Different people helped her along the way.
At twenty-two, Marimo met her now ex-husband. “I was young and naive,” she said.
From early on, her husband was abusive. Marimo knew she shouldn’t be in the relationship, but thought she had to stay. “I thought if you were married, you could get legal status.”
In 2003, Marimo went to an immigration lawyer to get her status fixed. It was then she discovered her husband didn’t have a birth certificate, only a birth record. His mother had verbally changed his last name, and he had only a social security card, which was issued to him at age sixteen.
Because of this, she wasn’t able to receive legal status.
Marimo continued working and living with the challenging marriage. Her husband was very abusive, and she was also growing tired of denying her sexuality. “I just came to a point where I could no longer go on with the marriage,” she said.
“I always had an internal struggle from an early age,” Marimo said. “I was the biggest tomboy, but I came from a culture where gender roles were very specific.”
As a child, Marimo thought something was wrong with her, that maybe she was cursed. No one in her family talked about it. “If bad things happen, you don’t talk about them,” she said.
Marimo told her husband she wanted a divorce.
“He basically beat the crap out of me,” she said. “He choked me until I was unconscious.”
When Marimo regained consciousness, she started to panic. “I knew my immigration status was never fixed.”
She got ahold of Catholic Charities to get help in adjusting her immigration status. They said the Violence Against Women Act would help her case.
Her husband was jailed. Marimo got a protection order against him and was granted temporary custody of her children.
Marimo then discovered her husband had taken all of her documents and had hidden them from her.
On December 31, she was sleeping in her house. At seven in the morning, six ICE agents knocked on her door. They had a big photo of her on a clipboard. They initially had said they wanted to talk about her husband, then started asking her questions about why she was here, etc.
Earlier, Marimo had helped her aunt and others in her family who moved to the US get their green cards. When Marimo’s aunt walked through her front door, the ICE agents demanded to see her identification papers.
Her daughter was four and her son was two at the time.
The agents determined she was here illegally and said they would start immediately with removal proceedings.
They then took her to immigration headquarters, located near the airport. She was put in a holding room and made to take off her sweater. The holding room was a very cold concrete cell with a toilet.
At that time, her bond was set at $25,000. She was eventually given a form to sign. Marimo could either sign to be deported or sign to be put in front of a judge in ten days. She signed to be put in front of a judge.
Marimo was then transported to Cass County Jail in Plattsmouth and placed on immigration hold. “They didn’t know anything about my case,” she said.
After the weekend was over, and she didn’t see her aunt, the gravity of her situation began to sink in. “I thought my life was over,” she said.
Marimo was eventually allowed to call her aunt, who had found an immigration lawyer, and she was able to talk with her kids.
But ten days came and went, and Marimo was never placed in front of a judge. For some reason, her court date had been canceled.
She later discovered her husband had gone to the court and told them Marimo had been deported. They believed him, and he was granted custody of their children.
“By the twentieth of January, I started giving up hope,” Marimo said. At this time, she began writing her memoir. She wanted her children to know what had happened to her. “I literally just spent my days writing,” she said.
“I finally went to the judge on the twenty-ninth,” Marimo said. The bail had been brought down to $4,000, and her husband would be charged with third-degree assault and strangulation.
Because Marimo was considered a flight risk, in spite of her lack of papers, they attached a GPS device to her ankle.
Marimo discovered her husband had taken everything out of their house, had taken their kids, and had moved to Iowa.
“After two months, I finally got visitation with my kids,” Marimo said.
When she was able to return home, Marimo found notices from prosecutors on her front door. “Contact us,” they said. Marimo spoke with them about what had happened, and her husband was found guilty of unlawful taking.
Because of her husband’s history of abuse, Marimo was granted sole custody of her children. The divorce was finally finalized in 2011.
Marimo should have her green card within the next two months.
“It’s been a really, really long journey,” she said. “I’m trying to pick up the pieces.”
Marimo has been doing a lot of human rights activism, not only relating to LGBT rights, but also domestic violence and diversity.
She tells her story whenever she can. This Fall, Marimo will be speaking at Yale.
See more about her memoir, Freedom of an Illegal Immigrant, here.