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Sarika M'Bagoyi embraces neighbor during a rally on behalf of her husband, Christian M'Bagoyi. Photo: Alan Nuñez / AL DÍA News
Sarika M'Bagoyi embraces neighbor during a rally on behalf of her husband, Christian M'Bagoyi. Photo: Alan Nuñez / AL DÍA News

A devastated South Philly community is pleading to anyone who’ll listen to return their neighbor

Christian M’Bagoyi is a South Philly resident and lawful U.S. citizen, abiding by the conditions of his stay until two weeks ago when the feds arrested him.

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Neighbors from a tight-knit South Philadelphia community remember Christian M’Bagoyi, a West African Immigrant with over 20 years as a lawful U.S. citizen, as a kind, gentle soul. 

His wife, Sarika M’Bagoyi, said he’d collect flies and carry them out of the house using index cards because it wasn’t his nature to whack them. He is a father to two toddlers, the oldest being five.

Erika Guadalupe Núñez, executive director of Juntos, spoke of an interview she held some time ago with Christian  — a union carpenter with deep ties to his community — who then told Guadalupe Núñez that his best work, his lifelong pride and joy, were his children.

Parents at the school where Christian’s family took his children could only recall a man devoted to his loved ones who often went out of his way to help, however, whenever he could. The school’s principal said he “participated in every single family event that we've had.”

That is until about two weeks ago when officers of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency abruptly and without notice apprehended him as he returned from work, detaining him in front of his home, a scarring on display for the surrounding neighborhood that witnessed as agents carried Christian away. 

Until officers handcuffed Christian outside his residence, the family had no indication that he would be arrested, Kumar said, nor were they aware of any alert that may have triggered an arrest. For years, Christian kept a spotless record, maintained his employment through work permits, and was a registered citizen with a Social Security Number, per his orders of supervision.

A Philly story was “kidnapped” by ICE

Christian traveled and later settled in the U.S. using a tourist visa at 20 years old, staying after the tourist permit expired, and was later denied a request for asylum. According to reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jeff Gammage, Christian’s ethnicity poses a danger for him in his home country, located in West AfricaBut his supervised stay in the country enabled Christian to secure employment as a carpenter, obtain an SSN, and live a routine similar to anybody else. 

At an emergency rally convened by Juntos on Tuesday, the family's neighbors conveyed the shock that struck the community upon learning that Christian — a man they described as a “model immigrant” — was separated from his family without notice. 

“We are devastated,” said Gina Simon, a South Philly resident, and neighbor to the Kumars.

“I look okay right now, but I have been trying to keep my emotions at bay. Our kids play together, we have had cookouts, we have had our street block parties. We are his community. We are his home. And we are devastated.”

Similarly to other parents, Christian took his kids to school and supported family-led initiatives, often stepping in to assist with projects.

“My kids go to school with Christian’s kids, so it's really impacted me directly,” another parent said.

“I spend a lot of time volunteering. Christian comes into school, volunteers, and helps out with the kids, so it's devastating to me to see what his kids are going through.”

“He's built relationships with the children, the staff, and other families,” the school’s principal said. “Taking that spirit away from our center is an absolute travesty, and it's something that should have never happened.”

Immigration advocates with years of experience on the ground said Christian’s case felt like a deep wound, given his deep ties with the community. Through the rally, organizers amassed upwards of thousands of signatures in support of Christian's family and continued to host call-a-thons to shed light on his case, holding to a sliver hope amid a shroud of uncertainty for the family, 

A volatile system

The harsh reality of impending deportation is one that undocumented immigrants who reside in the United States are all too familiar with. Despite obtaining the necessary permits, records, and continued check-ins with relevant officials, the guarantee of receiving asylum is slim, if nonexistent.

For Black immigrants, the likelihood of being apprehended by authorities, leading to eventual deportation, becomes disparately higher. Although Black immigrants make up a fraction of the undocumented population, the risk of deportation is ten times higher, according to independent studies

Immigration activists and organizers congregated in ICE's Field office in Philly to protest Christian M'Bagoyi's deportation. Photo: Alan Nuñez / AL DIA News
Immigration activists and organizers congregated in ICE's Field office in Philly to protest Christian M'Bagoyi's deportation. Photo: Alan Nuñez / AL DIA News

Still, the spirit of the Biden administration’s definition of a final warning in 2021 heeded officials to prioritize immigrants “convicted of serious crimes, those who threatened national security, and recent border entrants,” the order reads. 

The executive order further sought to “safeguard the dignity and well-being of all families and communities” in a stark change of pace from the previous administration, which employed sweeping detaining and deportation practices. 

But the M'Bagoyi's were swiftly stripped of their dignity and well-being, advocates, neighbors, and elected officials argued. 

Christian’s family shoulders the aftermath

“I’m a mess,” an aggrieved Kumar told reporters in a rally outside of the ICE Philly field office on behalf of her husband of seven years. “I can’t take care of the kids the way he does… I didn’t sign up to be a single parent, so it’s very hard.” 

The M'Bagoyi's kept a doomsday folder in the event that the family’s worst nightmare would come to fruition. She held tightly onto a white, thick binder that barely fit in Kumar’s hands, hoping never to have to open it. 

M'Bagoyi, asked whether she had communicated the event to their daughters, said Christian had to go help someone “because they can barely process it.” 

“They know he would never leave unless there were something worthy for him to leave for. So that was the compelling story for them. But every day, they asked for him.”

What’s next

After being detained, Christian was first transferred to Moshannon Valley Processing Center, a refurbished migrant detention facility run by GEO Group that contains 1,876 beds. 

Moshannon became a focal point for advocates and few elected officials because of its remote location, raising concerns about the detainees’ ability to seek counsel for possibly eligible asylum cases. 

From Moshannon, Christian was transported to a facility in Alexandria, Virginia, before arriving in Louisiana, where a flight is reportedly scheduled to fly Christian out of the country. 

Advocates and organizers hope to shed light on Christian’s case, requesting that the Biden administration intervene to block his deportation. 

M'Bagoyisaid that in phone conversations, Christian remained positive. But in the immediate term, the family’s future is in limbo. 

Christian was formally deported on Thursday.

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