Freedom for Glenwood’s Akim Gama
Glenwood Springs Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
AURORA, Colorado – Henry Akim Gama’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as walked into the courtroom and saw seven friends looking back at him Thursday morning.
A moment later, his trademark big, easy smile appeared.
“There will be no hugging or touching – please!” a detention official said, pointing Gama into his seat.
Almost seven hours later just before 4 p.m., there was lots of hugging, handshakes and smiles that wouldn’t fade.
A group of Gama’s friends greeted him when he was released on $2,000 bond after spending almost eight months in the GEO Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center and nearly getting deported to Zimbabwe or Malawi.
“I never thought I’d see this day, man,” Gama said, the enormous smile again returning. “Seriously.”
“Most people don’t walk out that door,” he said later.
Earlier, in the courtroom, Gama wore the detention facility’s clothing – a dark blue short-sleeved shirt and dark blue baggy pants. His black hair was short but shaggier than usual. He sat down and traded whispers with his attorney, Mark Barr. Another attorney walked through the purple-trimmed door and sat down to represent the government. Immigration Judge J.P. Vandello appeared and the bond hearing was underway.
The government attorney said he was unaware Gama’s case for asylum had been reopened. He said he hadn’t read the latest order, but Gama was previously ordered deported and the case had a complex history.
“I don’t think $10,000 is an unfair amount,” the attorney said. Barr, with the Lichter and Associates law firm, handed Vandello a stack of documents including personal letters of support. He outlined the history of Gama’s case. Gama, of Zimbabwe, is an active member of the country’s Movement for Democratic Change opposition party and came to the U.S. legally in 2000 hoping to escape political persecution. He had permission to stay until 2002. He didn’t know he was supposed to file for asylum within a year of arriving and filed in 2004. He appeared at a few court hearings until an August 2006 court date.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Gama got the date wrong and appeared in court 11 days late,” Barr told Vandello.
A judge ordered Gama removed for missing the date. A previous attorney, who some Gama supporters have accused of incompetence, filed a failed motion to reopen the case, then Barr’s second motion to reopen Gama’s case was granted April 15. Barr argued that Gama would be persecuted by President Robert Mugabe’s regime for his political beliefs and that violence and human rights conditions in Zimbabwe had gotten even worse since the country’s recent election.
Gama’s friends, who’ve donated over $16,000 for his case, include his former employer at the Rivers Restaurant, Anita Wan, Glenwood Springs City Councilor Dave Sturges and other Rotarians. They believe he is a model citizen with an outstanding case for asylum. Some find it ironic he was arrested while trying – albeit imperfectly – to become a legal citizen while some illegal immigrants live their lives unnoticed by the government.
Barr said Gama has lived and worked in Glenwood for a number of years and has a “wide swath” of support from the community. He said Gama’s only criminal history was a DUI in 2003. Barr asked for a low bond and said Gama isn’t a flight risk or a danger to the community.
Vandello said a lower bond is in order in Gama’s case and “the support in the community shows there’s not a high likelihood of absconding.”
The judge lowered the bond to $2,000.
“Finally, a little common sense,” said Gama’s friend, Dave Lincoln, after the hearing.
Barr said Gama’s case will probably come down to an asylum hearing of several hours about 1 1/2 years from now. He was optimistic about the prospects. He said getting Gama’s case reopened after the previous failed motion to reopen was probably much tougher than it will be for Gama to gain asylum.
Barr said he’s never seen this level of support for a client from a mayor on down to Rotarians, people in schools and Gama’s former employer. Usually it’s just a few family members.
“It just seems like everyone he meets, he somehow makes a bond with,” Barr said. “As you know, Henry makes friends with everybody.”
Gama made friends in the detention center, too.
Barr said he has other clients who met Gama at the GEO center and they asked Barr to tell him they said hello.
The journey into the courtroom began by walking through the GEO center’s front doors. It’s a beige, large one-story building surrounded by a chain-link fence that sits across the street from an emissions testing facility.
Visitors were immediately greeted by a desk and metal detector that cuts off a narrow hallway. All the walls are white-painted cinder blocks. All the trim on windows and doors and the doors themselves are purple. A detention official behind the desk took forms and driver’s licenses and called women “madame” with an accent.
Visitors put on badges and make their way down the hallway and into a small waiting room. Gama’s supporters arrived a half-hour early and waited over an hour until the hearing started.
“The first thing we’re going to do is get him a really good meal,” Wan said.
A detention official said Gama’s hearing would have to occur in its own courtroom because Gama’s supporters couldn’t all fit into the courtroom with all the other cases on the docket.
Visitors were directed from the waiting room into an even smaller closet-sized portal room with three purple doors before reaching the courtroom.
Wan posted Gama’s bond around 1 p.m. There was a little over $1,000 left over from an earlier fundraising party and donations, and Rotarians raised almost $1,000 last week, she said. She was told Gama would get out in about an hour. Another detention official outside the center said it could be as long as four hours. A photographer was ordered off the property and supporters joined her on the curb.
“Hurry up and wait,” said Rob Tramazzo, a friend of Gama’s.
Gama was out almost three hours later. He said he’s never seen the GEO center from the outside.
“I can’t believe I’m smelling fresh air,” he said.
After the hugs and high-fives, Gama asked Lincoln, “Did you schedule that round of golf for Sunday?”
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