One year ago, Therese Patricia Okoumou scaled the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July to make the world take notice of her rallying call for immigration policy to be reformed in America. The iconic image Okoumou left behind was still resonating 365 days later on Independence Day as the country remains deeply divided in an ongoing immigration debate that has seen thousands of asylum seekers separated from their families and crammed inside cages in detention centers along the nation’s southern border.
The woman who gave a metaphoric middle finger to the United States’ inhumane immigration policies by scaling the Statue of Liberty on America’s purported birthday, no less, left behind an indelible image of courage and heroism for her fearless and selfless acts on Wednesday. Therese Patricia Okoumou, an African immigrant and a member of a group that was “committed to opposing, disrupting, and defeating any government act that threatens democracy, equality, and our civil liberties” was due in a New York City court Thursday morning after being arrested for her act of civil disobedience that on the surface was just a misdemeanor.
Looking a bit deeper, however, her true offense was demanding that “all the children get released,” a reference to America’s shameful practice of separating migrant families seeking asylum at the U.S. border. The U.S. has detained” more than 2,000 children after criminally prosecuting their parents or guardians on illegal immigration charges, keeping them all in cages. That combination, which has shown itself to be deadly at times, proved to be too much for Okoumou to ignore when she decided to bring added attention to the children on Thursday.
She and her fellow Rise and Resist members unfurled a banner on Ellis Island appealing to the government to abolish the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency responsible for carrying out the family separations and arresting and deporting adults seeking asylum in the U.S. But afterward, Okoumou apparently did the unexpected and began her solo journey ascending Lady Liberty in an act that many people on social media found to be more than appropriate.
While Okoumou’s move wasn’t expected by Rise and Resist, the organization made sure that people knew they fully supported the actions by its daring member after it released an initial statement Wednesday.
“We realize that in our haste to complete the statement so that we could continue working to secure the best legal representation for Patricia, we unintentionally led people to believe that we were distancing the group from Patricia,” the group wrote in a statement published on the website Medium. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Patricia is our friend, our comrade, our sister. From the moment that we realized that this amazing woman whom we have gotten to know, love, and respect was the person who had climbed to the foot of Lady Liberty, we had three concerns: one for her safety from falling, second, for her safety as a woman of color who was about to be engaged by law enforcement, and third, to find her the best legal representation that we could.”
Originally from Congo, Okoumou was a resident of New York City’s borough of Staten Island, according to a profile written by the New York Daily News on Wednesday night. The 44-year-old has a history of demonstrating against the U.S. immigration policies, one Rise and Resist member told the Daily News.
“She’s been an active member of Rise and Resist for four or five months,”Jay Walker said. “She’s participated in quite a few of our actions.”
Okoumou’s actions were seemingly personal. She was one of about 2.1 million African immigrants living in the U.S. legally, according to recent statistics from Pew Research Center. And that number has steadily risen over the past few years. While the overwhelming narrative surrounding immigration in the U.S. has revolved around Latinos and Hispanics, “Immigration from Africa also has picked up markedly and accounted for 8% of new arrivals in 2013, quadruple its share among newly arrived immigrants in 1970,” Pew reported.
Black immigrants in particular were being “detained and deported at five times the rate of their presence in the undocumented immigrant community,” data from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration has shown.
At least one GoFundMe account has been started to raise money for Okoumou’s expected legal fees.