A University of Wisconsin graduate student was arrested late last week and risks deportation to Nigeria, her family said this weekend.

Tope Awe, a third-year graduate student in the UW School of Pharmacy, and her family were summoned to the U.S. Homeland Security office in Milwaukee Thursday. When Awe and her brother Gbenga Awe — a recent UW-Stevens Point graduate — arrived, both were unexpectedly arrested, her father Sam Awe told The Badger Herald.

“When we got there, the Homeland Security officer came and took Tope and her brother and told us they were going to fingerprint them,” Sam Awe said. “We said OK, and that was it. After about one or two hours we started to worry; it was then that they came out and said they were being interrogated and were going to be detained.”

According to her father, the family was called to the U.S. Immigration offices to regularize their residency status, after a Homeland Security officer visited their residence in November 2007 and told them they were “deportable.”

Tope Awe has been in the U.S. since she was three years old, is a UW-Milwaukee alumna and moved to Madison for graduate school.

UW School of Pharmacy Dean Jeanette Roberts said Caton Roberts, faculty director at Chadbourne Residential College, visited Awe Saturday morning and has kept in touch with her.

“We’ve been in contact with her sporadically. She seems to be in good spirits and in good physical and mental health — for being in jail,” she added.

According to Jeanette Roberts, UW has also contacted Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., in hope of getting help. Sam Awe said he has also contacted Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., whose district includes


In wake of Awe’s arrest, her friends have started a petition to ask U.S. Immigration to allow her to stay in the country at least until her expected graduation in May 2009. They have also started a Facebook group to spread information on Awe’s situation.

UW senior Selamawit Zewdie, a close friend involved in the campaign, said they had collected more than 1,330 pieces of writing in Awe’s support in the last two days — more than 830 signatures, 95 letters and 405 online signatures — and the Facebook group had more than 1,000 members as of early Sunday evening.

Awe is founder and co-chair of the African Student Association, co-president of the Multicultural Affairs Program in Pharmacy and a Multicultural Resident Consultant at Chadbourne Residential College. According to friends and university officials, she is involved in promoting diversity and a positive climate for students of color at UW.

Zewdie said the letters will be sent to the judge responsible for hearing Awe’s case, in efforts to show her “impact and importance” in the UW community.

Dean of Students Lori Berquam said the UW School of Pharmacy has been most involved with the issue. The School of Pharmacy has contacted the chancellor’s office in hopes of also getting a supportive letter from Chancellor John Wiley, Berquam said.

“The student support has been very fantastic and kind of demonstrates the Wisconsin spirit and the kind of concern for a fellow student,” Berquam said.

Sam Awe said he came to the U.S. from Nigeria in the fall of 1969, when he started attending the University of California-Davis, later transferring and receiving a Bachelor of Science degree from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. He later obtained a Ph.D. from the UW School of Agriculture in 1979.

Upon graduating from UW, Sam Awe discovered he had a kidney disease and has since been to the U.S. several times after his body started rejecting his kidney, he said. The Awe family has been in the country since 1989 on a B1-B2 Visa, which he said has allowed them to stay in the country for as long as his treatment lasts.

“My wife could not leave [the children] behind, so they came with my wife to give me moral and psychological support,” Sam Awe said. “That was the recommendation of my doctor.”

Despite his doctors advising him not to leave the country due to his medical condition, the 68-year-old man said immigration officials visited his residence in November 2007 and said he could “seek treatment somewhere else.”

“My wife and myself have been contributing to the development of this community. I work as a licensed special education teacher and so does my wife,” Sam Awe said. “We’ve been paying our taxes now since 1996 and we have property. We register cars; we pay everything we owe.”

Sam Awe said he has contacted a Chicago-based immigration attorney and will try to contact the responsible judge to arrange a hearing for his son and daughter. A hearing was originally scheduled for Monday, but has been moved to a to-be-determined time.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday.