Mid-October, a mother from Liberia who was afraid of being deported, was arrested on first-degree murder charges connected to the deaths of her 3-month-old son and her 5-year-old step son. Her name is Kula Pelima. And her story is a testament to the fear of deportation that agonizes immigrants daily.
Pelima’s boyfriend, Victor Epelle, a native of Nigeria, was in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody after a probation violation. Pelima was left alone caring for their child and Epelle’s son from a previous relationship. Both Pelima and Epelle were green-card holders. According to The News Journal, Epelle’s expired while he was in police custody, and Pelima was afraid that hers may soon expire.
The News Journal reports that a Pelima legally emigrated from Liberia in 1997 when she was 10 years old, soon after the First Liberian Civil War. She left a country plagued by cutthroat warlords and their armies of drugged child soldiers, corruption, mutilation and rape. A second civil war ensued between 1999 and 2003, bringing the combined civil war death toll to over 250,000 citizens.
On Oct. 13, Pelima called the police, who told The News Journal that they assured her she wasn’t at risk, and gave her the number to a hotline to call for more detailed answers.
Hours later, Pelima called police again to tell them that she had drowned the two children.
Officers returned to find the boys dead in the bathtub, and natural gas emanating from the stove top.
Her story is eerily similar to that of Margaret Garner. Garner, whose life served as the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” was born into slavery. In January 1856, 22-year-old Garner, her husband and their four children attempted to escape.
They lived in slaveholding Covington, Kentucky, just five miles south of free Cincinnati, Ohio. The family walked across the frozen Ohio River and found refuge at Garner’s uncle’s house. After enjoying a couple hours of freedom, they were found by federal marshals.
The idea of returning her children to bondage was more than Garner could bear. She decided to kill them instead.
Once marshals broke in, they saw Garner’s daughter Mary dead on the floor with her throat slit. Her two sons were hiding in another room, bruised and bleeding.
According to Nikki Taylor, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati, we only have one direct quote from Garner: “I did the best that a mother could do. And I would have done better and more for the rest. I’ve done the best I could.”
We don’t yet know how Pelima feels about killing the children. She may be remorseful, but she also may stand by her choice, like Garner. So many thoughts could have been thrashing through her head that morning: maybe she had flashbacks to the formative years she unwillingly surrendered to war. Maybe the pressures of potentially raising these boys without Epelle were proving themselves too strong.
What we do know is that she was afraid of being deported. It has yet to have been reported that she killed them because she was afraid of deportation, but knowing that this was on her mind mere hours before the murder makes it irresponsible to write it off as coincidence.
If she was deported, the children would not have been. They were both American citizens, and the eldest wasn’t even her son. These boys had their entire lives ahead of them and Pelima unjustly robbed them of a future. I hate that these boys are dead. I also hate that Pelima was living in a reality that made her feel compelled to kill them.
The fear of deportation is real. Dr. Evan Ashkan, a professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina, told The New York Times that it’s making his patients sick. Ashkan, who said he has worked with many uninsured immigrants, has noticed an uptick in their physical manifestations of anxiety and depression (including stomach aches and dizziness), and has had patients forego medical treatment, because they’re afraid “immigration agents might be waiting.”
This fear also extends to documented immigrants. Following the travel ban issued by the Trump administration in January, NPR reported that many green-card holders (like Pelima and Epelle) were terrified of what could happen, and were “flocking” to apply for citizenship.
Pelima didn’t have to kill those children. But the fear of being sent back to the war-torn nightmare that was her childhood made her feel like she had to.
She felt death was a better fate for her boys than the uncertainty that lay ahead. It’s likely that similar to Garner, she did what she felt was the best she could do.
Her story is extraordinary – there has not been and will not be a mass movement of immigrants murdering their children while facing the threat of deportation. But the fact that this country has created an immigratory climate so dismal that someone is this terrified, means that something has got to change.
Kara Brown is a senior majoring in English.