Originally Published in The Nation
John Washington - November 9, 2020
When he wrote those lines, he had been in US immigrant detention for two years, fighting to find a legal avenue to protection. Giscard’s initial asylum claim was denied. He appealed the negative ruling, but his appeal, too, was denied. Still fearing a return to a country he was certain would detain, torture, and maybe kill him, as Covid-19 spread, he wrote, “What I think awaits me now is nothing but death.” He appealed again to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, still hoping to find safety: “I’m tired of all this and I need my freedom back.”
But since early October, even as the Fifth Circuit decision remains pending, ICE has been transferring Cameroonians to a detention center near Dallas, allegedly coercing and even violently forcing some of them to sign deportation papers. A complaint on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Freedom for Immigrants submitted last month to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties detailed ICE’s threats, including “excessive use of force, including physical abuse and pepper spray” used to force Cameroonians to sign their deportation orders. “This pattern of coercion and unwarranted use of physical force by ICE officers is abusive, unlawful, and tantamount to torture,” the complaint summarizes. ICE did not respond to comments on the multiple allegations reported in this article.
I spoke with multiple detained Cameroonian asylum seekers who described the abuse. One of them, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, told me he was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed in the face (both practices are corroborated by the complaint). He was then dragged and thrown into a solitary confinement cell where he was left alone for three days.
In the end, Giscard and 56 other Cameroonians were deported on October 13, sent back to a country in which they allege their very lives could be in danger. Perhaps most troubling for the future of other detainees currently awaiting deportation, advocates claim these removals were part of an election-season rush to deport as many as possible before a new administration can take over in Washington. Dozens of Cameroonians currently in ICE detention could be deported as soon as Tuesday.
“Mass deportations to the Central African region do not appear to be isolated,” Sarah Gardiner, policy director of Freedom for Immigrants, told me via e-mail. “They are occurring largely in secret while the public attention is focused on the election and a potential change in administration.”
Asylum is increasingly, almost vanishingly, hard to come by in the United States. People showing up at the US-Mexican border seeking safety are summarily expelled. And yet, despite the pandemic, despite the Trump administration’s concerted and relentless efforts to undermine the asylum system, there is no shortage of danger and targeted persecution throughout the world still causing people to flee.
Though most asylum seekers in the United States come from Central America and China, West Africans, especially as they are blocked from finding safety in Europe, are starting to make the long and perilous journey to the United States to seek safety and freedom.
Over 1,500 Cameroonians applied for asylum in fiscal year 2020, which is up from fewer than 150 only five years ago. Many are fleeing deadly sectarian violence, which some are describing as genocide, as the Francophone ruling party of Cameroon is violently cracking down on the Anglophone minority. Tens of thousands of Cameroonians have fled the country in recent years. As of September, more than 3,000 Cameroonians—the vast majority of them seeking asylum—had cases backlogged in US immigration courts.
When the 57 Cameroonians were deported last month, one woman was physically restrained and shackled to a seat of the bus taking them to the airport. Another deported Cameroonian, who also feared retribution and asked that I not share his name, told me about the flight. “During the deportation I was handcuffed for 14 hours. I had to urinate, and they let me go to the bathroom but didn’t take off the handcuffs. I peed on myself.”
The situation got significantly worse upon landing. There was a pervasive fear that they would be immediately detained upon arrival by Cameroonian security officials. After two days of quarantine, some of them were released to family members. One independent African media outlet claimed that 30 of them were detained. A lawyer and advocate in Cameroon told me he could account for at least 13 who remain in detention almost a month after their deportation. According to immigrant advocate and volunteer with Free Them All San Diego, Anne-Marie Debbané, many of the deported Cameroonians who were released had to pay bribes for their freedom. Some went straight into hiding. Giscard was initially taken to a police station. He told me he knew what was coming.
After six days in detention, during which he says he was tortured, Giscard’s family scraped together $1,000 dollars and paid a bribe for his release. The police kept his ID and all of his paperwork and identifying documents. He has since gone into hiding, spending time at a church that has offered him refuge, and in nearby abandoned buildings. “The fear I have now has grown bigger,” he told me in a series of WhatsApp audio messages. He sent along photos of himself, shirtless and appearing sleep-deprived in a bare, half-walled room. “All documents I had that identified me as a Cameroonian have been seized. Presently I can say I am stateless. I can’t move. That’s why I am in hiding. The level of persecution is so high.”
In having bribed his way to at least temporary freedom, Giscard may be lucky. I spoke with the sister of another deported asylum seeker who remains in a maximum-security prison in Cameroon. His current status is unclear, and she fears she may not see him again.
Gardiner from Freedom for Immigrants said, “The fact that ICE continues to conduct mass deportations of Black immigrants to danger in Cameroon—in the middle of global pandemic—underscores exactly why we are fighting for an end to a system that cages people simply for crossing a border in search of safety and a better life.
According to advocates, there are at least 37 Cameroonians currently detained in the Prairieland Detention Facility, near Dallas, Tex. Some of them have been told that they will be deported as soon as Tuesday. Once again, there are reports that some of the asylum seekers are being forced to sign their deportations. According to another letter to the DHS Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Office, written by the SPLC and Freedom for Immigrants, “The use of violent force to obtain signatures in violation of immigrants’ rights appears to be part of an ongoing pattern and practice of ICE officials and their agents within the New Orleans ICE office.” The letter includes testimonies from six asylum seekers detailing ICE’s violent coercion tactics.
According to one of the anonymous testimonials:
I said I could not sign without talking to my attorney. She insisted I sign, saying if I didn’t we would have to do it the hard way. She then called in five ICE officers who told me if I didn’t sign these documents they would force me to do so. When I continued to refuse, one ICE officer demanded the others bring handcuffs. They cuffed one of my hands, trying to bring the two hands together to cuff them and take my fingerprints, but I resisted. There were eight ICE officers and representatives holding me aggressively, pressing my body down, pushing on my shoulders, and trying to move my fingers. After about five minutes of struggle, they forced my index finger on the paper.
I spoke with Daniel Legwengong, the brother of Jones Mbemg Bonkem, who was recently transferred to the Dallas detention center, where he has been informed that he will be deported shortly. Like Giscard, he also has an appeal pending in the Fifth Circuit court. His brother told me he will be picked up by Cameroonian security forces as soon as he is deported. The family fears “prolonged imprisonment or that they [the Cameroonian government] will kill him silently and nobody will ever know what happens to him.”
Legwengong added, “The American government should not be responsible for sending people to their early graves.”