Conspiracy in New Hampshire

Ted Wilkinson

Once a favorite
tool of the Justice Department during the Nixon administration, the federal
Conspiracy Statute has resurfaced in a sinister new form and in a most
unlikely place: the conservative countryside of southwestern New Hampshire. In
the solidly Republican town of Milford, on the morning of December 22, 2000,
heavily-armed agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
surrounded a house in a quiet neighborhood.

The objective
was to serve an arrest warrant for criminal conspiracy on Wanjiku Thiongo, a
Kenyan woman who has lived legally in the United States for 23 years. Her
husband Sammy, an engineer, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and their four
American-born children are citizens by right. Their oldest son, Ben, is a
student at Emerson College in Boston. Two other children, Njuguna and Nyambura
attend Phillips Exeter Academy, where Njuguna was recently elected senior
class president. Their youngest, Moe, attends the Fenn School in Concord,
Massachusetts. This is a family that exemplifies the American Dream, thriving
on hard work and rigorous education.

Wanjiku has
worked (legally she had a green card until the INS confiscated it after her
arrest) for two decades as an educator and community organizer, promoting
cultural exchange programs between her native Kenya and her adopted home.
After completing all the requirements for U.S. citizenship, and while awaiting
a date for her official swearing-in as a full citizen of our country, Wanjiku
was instead indicted by the U.S. Attorney for New Hampshire on the charge of
Conspiracy to Commit Visa Fraud. If convicted, she will be imprisoned pending
deportation to Kenya, under the terms of the Illegal Immigration Reform and
Immigrant Responsibility Act that President Clinton signed into law in 1996
and that the INS has been aggressively enforcing ever since.

The INS is
alleging not that Wanjiku violated the conditions of her own visa or immigrant
status, but that she encouraged other Kenyans to do so. The context is
immigration law, but the actual charge against her is criminal conspiracy.
According to the U.S. Criminal Code, conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor is a
felony. If you and a friend, while waiting to cross a city street, discuss the
possibility of jaywalking, and if you then take a step toward the street, you
have “conspired with one or more persons, known or unknown…” to violate a law,
and have performed an “act in furtherance” of the planned violation. That’s
all it takes.

Why has Wanjiku
become the target of heavy-handed oppression by the INS? Her friends in New
Hampshire are convinced that it’s because she’s an African working for justice
and human rights. That’s her only “crime.” The defense attorneys who have
reviewed the facts in Wanjiku’s case have been struck by the flimsiness, even
silliness, of the government’s case and by the government’s overly zealous
pre-trial tactics.

government’s case against her stems from her community organizing and cultural
exchange work with various constituent groups over the years—women, students,
dairy farmers—for whom she has organized exchange visits between the United
States and Kenya. Scores of Kenyans have visited our country on temporary
visas and scores of Americans have visited Kenya on temporary visas. Now our
government claims that some of the Kenyans overstayed their visas and is
blaming this on Wanjiku, despite the fact that she required all program
participants to obtain round-trip tickets before embarking on their travels.
The dairy exchange programs in the U.S. were hosted by the St. Albans
Cooperative Creamery in Vermont and New Hampshire Congressperson Charlie
Bass’s office routinely helped to expedite the issuance of visas through the
U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. Does this sound like a criminal conspiracy?

According to
the indictment, Wanjiku conspired with others to obtain visas “fraudulently,”
and the “act in furtherance” was a statement on some of the visa applications
that the program participants would be staying at a particular motel (e.g.,
Days Inn in Nashua) on specified dates. But the U.S. State Department took so
long to issue the visas that the program travel plans, including the motel
schedules, had to be changed by the time the visas were issued. So the
participants didn’t stay at the Days Inn on the dates listed in their visa
applications. That’s the alleged fraud and that’s the government’s entire case
against Wanjiku.

The federal
conspiracy statutes first came to prominence during the reign of John
Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General, in 1969. With the enthusiastic support of
J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, Mitchell ordered the Justice Department to indict Dr.
Benjamin Spock, Catholic peace activists, Black Panthers, and protest
organizers at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, to name just
a few. As America’s assault on Southeast Asia escalated, domestic enemies of
the state were identified and monitored not just by the FBI and various local
and state police intelligence units, but also (we now know) by the CIA, the
NSA, and the intelligence sections of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force.

While it may be
easy to dismiss the excesses of a discredited Administration long out of
power, it’s much harder to understand the current anti-immigrant hysteria as
anything more than crude xenophobia and racism. The INS consistently shows a
callous disregard for human life along the U.S.-Mexican border. But there have
been no reports of Grand Jury investigations or conspiracy indictments against
the corporate farmers who rely on illegal immigrants to harvest America’s
food. The most prestigious American universities routinely recruit scholars
and athletes from foreign countries and some of these “aliens” overstay their
visas. But neither Harvard, Stanford, or the University of Michigan has been
charged with Conspiracy to Commit Visa Fraud, even though they all encourage
foreign nationals to enter the U.S. and to participate in ongoing programs.

With the case
of United States of America v. Wanjiku Thiongo, however, the government
is sparing no expense in protecting the Republic from this gentle person and
community organizer. INS investigators have fanned out across New England,
interrogating Kenyan immigrants and offering green cards to anyone who will
“cooperate” and testify against Wanjiku.

The good news
is that, even in conservative New Hampshire, citizens are rallying to support
Wanjiku and her family. The Unitarian Universalist Church in Milford is
leading the effort to organize community support. Doug Grant, chair of their
Social Responsibility Committee, has an informational website at And the UU Church is custodian
of the Wanjiku Thiongo Legal Defense Fund, a tangible indicator of community
support that is small but is steadily growing.

Even if Wanjiku
is acquitted, she and her family will have paid a heavy price. In small-town
New Hampshire, their name will be associated with charges of criminal
conspiracy. Tens of thousands of dollars, all of their personal savings as
well as scores of private donations, will have gone toward legal fees. Money
and energy that could have strengthened our society through community
organizing will instead have been spent to buy a small measure of justice.  Z

Ted Wilkinson develops affordable housing in the Granite State. He is adjunct
professor at the Southern New Hampshire University School of Community
Economic Development.