There is a peaceful room in a safe, joyful home in the Washington metro area waiting for Micah, an English-speaking Cameroonian refugee who spent his 20th birthday on hunger strike in Pine Prairie Detention Center. His 19th birthday was also spent in ICE detention. His uncle, who raised him, has been counseling patience while waiting to bring him home to introduce him to his new aunt and little cousins, and to start his new life in America.
“He doesn’t say much, but we always laugh a lot,” his uncle says. “He’s a good boy, loves to play football. On Sundays we would do Bible studies together as a family, eat our cornchaff, a traditional meal of corn and beans; and achu, a special soup made from yams and hot pepper oil. Then we’d play traditional dance music and enjoy being together. My sister and I are really missing him.”
But his family says that last week Micah was transferred from Louisiana to the Prairieland Detention Center near Dallas. It is the staging area from which over two hundred Africans are threatened with mass deportation Tuesday. [The names of the Cameroonian detainees mentioned in this story have been changed or withheld to protect them from reprisal.]
“If they take him, I will never see him again,” Micah’s uncle said. “It’s even worse there now than when he fled after being arrested and tortured. There is a genocide in Cameroon. They are killing all the English-speaking youth. He will disappear. To take him back is to take him back to torture, back to the oppressors.”
Detainees report being forced to sign deportation papers
Advocates and immigration lawyers said on a press call on October 9 that ICE’s planned mass expulsion is a massive human rights violation. Grisly testimonies of coercion of signatures on “voluntary deportation” papers have been detailed in a complaint to the Department for Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and DHS Office of Inspector General filed on October 7, by Freedom for Immigrants, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Louisiana Advocates for Immigrants in Detention, Natchez Network, Detention Watch Network, Cameroon American Council, Haitian Bridge Alliance and Families for Freedom.
The Adams County, Miss., facility — where the advocates say Cameroonian detainees were forced to sign deportation orders — is under the aegis of ICE’s New Orleans Field Office. In an October 9 email, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox provided an inspection report that shows that Adams County facility is in compliance with standards. But that inspection report was published well before the incidents in question.
“The complaint speaks for itself,” said Jaclyn Cole, a legal advocate with the Southern Poverty Law Center of Louisiana. “ICE and their contractors are forcing detained immigrants to sign. Two men reported being strangled, officers promised they would kill them. Where is the oversight? Where is the accountability?”
But beyond the reports of crushed fingers, savage beatings, chokeholds, solitary confinement, pepper spray and forced removals at gunpoint, there are fundamental questions about the provenance and therefore the legality of ICE’s travel documents.
Cameroon’s borders are closed due to COVID-19, and its embassy has not been issuing travel documents according to Sofia Casini, director of Visitation Advocacy Strategies of Freedom for Immigrants (FFI), a California-based nonprofit advocating for the abolition of immigrant detention. That prompts the question: In the middle of a pandemic, who’s giving ICE travel documents for hundreds of asylum seekers, some of them with active cases of COVID-19?
Families for Freedom, a New York-based multi-ethnic human rights organization by and for families fighting deportation, issued a 2015 report documenting the bizarre and unlawful use by ICE of jimmied up travel documents. The “laissez passers,” or one-way passports, were supplied by a Dr. Charles R. Greene, III, described in the report as “a full-time Methodist minister in Texas who is not a Cameroonian citizen but who stated in federal court that the Cameroonian embassy appointed him as an ‘honorary consul of Cameroon’ in 1986 after the Shell Petroleum Company and Lewis Hoffacker, a former U.S. ambassador to Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, nominated Dr. Greene for the position.” His name reappeared last month.
Women detainees say they are among those forcibly sterilized
The Cameroonian Embassy has denied that Greene holds any authority to issue any document on its behalf. Yet as reported by The Intercept on October 2, as recently as September 16, ICE attempted to deport two Cameroonian women with travel documents signed by Greene. But because one of them had read the FFI report and recognized his name, they put up such a fuss at the airport, the airline refused to board them and they were returned to Prairieland. According to Sylvie Bello, founder of the Cameroon American Council, one of the women, who says she was forcibly sterilized while in ICE custody at the Irwin County (Ga.) Detention Center, was released on humanitarian grounds, but the other, who fears that she too was sterilized, is scheduled to be on the plane on Tuesday.
“I spoke with her yesterday (October 10),” that woman’s sister said. “She said they have not showed her anything, no documents yet.”
The U.S. House Oversight and Reform and Homeland Security committees began investigating allegations of ICE detainees being forcibly sterilized at the Irwin County Detention Center after a nurse who worked there called a doctor performing gynecological procedures “the uterus collector.”
Andrew Mosher, an immigration lawyer in New Orleans, suspects ICE “may be cheating” by attempting an end run around the kind of logistical barriers it faces with respect to plane clearances, detailed in a March 2019 report issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General which stated: “ICE Air manages complex logistical movements for commercial and charter flights through a cumbersome and inefficient manual process.” The report specifies four key difficulties: “obtaining foreign government permission for repatriation flights can delay removals. Foreign governments may require negotiations before accepting charter flights or can limit the number of repatriations allowed per month. Some foreign governments do not allow transit through their countries, requiring ICE Air to take a more complex route. In other instances, a foreign government authorizes a charter flight, but does not issue travel documents to the detainees or visas to the ICE Air flight crew in time to board the flight.”
On Saturday, October 10, Rose Murray, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Louisiana interviewed dozens of those at risk for Tuesday’s deportation about their travel documents. “ICE has refused to show any of them the paperwork, across the board,” Murray wrote in a text. Murray spoke with Micah about his travel documents and provided a transcript.
Where are you right now?
In Texas, LaSalle ICE Facility, Prairieland
Where were you before?
Pine Prairie, Louisiana
Do you think you are about to be deported on a flight? Why?
Yeah, they told us we were going to be deported – they told us some days back that we’re gonna be deported on the 13th of this month. In Louisiana and also in Texas.
Where is the flight going?
Cameroon, other countries in Africa.
Who told you this? ICE officer? Their name?
ICE Officer told us.
Have you seen your travel documents that ICE has?
Did you ask to see them?
Yeah we asked and they said they cannot share us.
Did you sign them?
Did ICE force you or try to force you to sign?
In PP they told him if he doesn’t sign, he’s going to a federal prison for 10 years. The ICE officer in PP said that.
Do you have any reason to believe they are fraudulent?
Yeah. My family outside called the Embassy and the Embassy said they didn’t give any travel documents for me. They said they don’t know how ICE got travel documents.
Does ICE have a passport for you?
Micah’s aunt confirmed that family members called the embassy back home. “They know nothing about his travel documents.”
‘We thought America had law’
Casini, of Freedom for Immigrants, says that while some of the Cameroonians scheduled for the flight have received their final orders of deportation, others are under active appeal, are green card holders or were released from detention only to be brought back to be deported.
“We are seeing mass human rights violation on potentially falsified documents using torture, coercion and brute force to obtain fingerprints with people actively sick with COVID,” she says.
On the October 9 press call, Liz Castillo, an organizer with Detention Watch Network, a national coalition with over 120 partner organizations, said they’ve approached members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, including U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly from Illinois, about plans to circulate an emergency letter. It will demand a stop to all deportations to Cameroon and a review of all cases for Cameroonians with pending deportations. Advocates on the ground in Dallas are discussing plans for a mobilization, according to Casini, but it is still unclear if the plane, if it is allowed to leave, will depart from Dallas or from a military base in Phoenix, Arizona. “There may be two planes, the Africans may be divided. We don’t yet know.”
Donald Anthonyson, director of Families For Freedom, said “it is pretty obvious that the United States is complicit in putting these people back in danger” and that the deportation on Tuesday “has to be stopped.” But equally, he said, the issue of the travel documents requires a deeper investigation.
“The travel document is the ultimate piece of what is needed for deportation,” Anthonyson said, “and if that is not pure and correct, then it puts everything into disarray.”
The planned deportation has been a terrible blow to the morale of the Cameroonian community living in the United States.
“I am so hurt,” says Micah’s aunt. “I just remember the happy little boy I knew. I am leaving everything to God because I don’t know how to fight them.”
“We are confused,” says her brother. “We thought America had law, that people here would defend us. We don’t know where we belong. If they betray us, we don’t know where else we can go.”
This article first appeared in the Louisiana Illuminator.