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Grim stories from asylum seekers caught up in America’s cranked-up deportation machine

They fled here from some of the world’s most dangerous places — only to be forced back.

Detained immigrants at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., in 2019. Under the Trump administration, thousands of asylum seekers have been held in such facilities rather than being released to sponsors while they press their asylum cases.
Detained immigrants at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., in 2019. Under the Trump administration, thousands of asylum seekers have been held in such facilities rather than being released to sponsors while they press their asylum cases.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

A few dozen men and women shuffled up the stairs to the Boeing 767 lashed in five-point restraints: ankles bound in cuffs joined by thick chains, wrists manacled, and the whole rig secured to metal belts draped heavily about each waist. Frightened, depressed, and faint from lack of food and water, one of the men, a Cameroonian singer, tripped and fell. A cadre of armed guards immediately swarmed him.

“They pulled me across the tarmac, sat on my back, and stuffed me into a sack,” says the man, whose name I am withholding to protect him from retribution.

According to the singer and two men who said they were eyewitnesses, the guards immobilized his already hobbled legs, wrapping them in a stiff black blanket and compressing them at the ankles, knees, and thighs with a series of yellow seat-belt-type straps. They enveloped his chained upper body in an armless vest clipped tightly at the back. Then they folded him “like a sandwich,” he says, leaning on his back to press his face to his knees. They cinched his chest at a 30-degree angle to his legs, which were held fast by a strap hooked to a ring at his feet, the onlookers say.

Six guards carried the singer onto the plane and dumped him, “like a load of wood,” across three seats, he says. They left him forcefully bent and gasping for air for what might have been hours, he says, relaxing his restraints only after the plane hit cruising altitude far above the clouds.

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He and the rest of the bound and shackled were being returned to Cameroon, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, places they’d fled as long as four years prior after experiencing political persecution. The five passengers I communicated with from that November flight say they were coerced — through some combination of beating, choking, shaming, brute force, being pepper-sprayed in the eyes, tasing, and threats thereof — into signing their own travel papers. Thirteen others from a similar journey in October — eight of whom are now party to a legal complaint — tell much the same story.

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These alleged depredations — which the government calls “unsubstantiated” — did not take place in Iraq or Chechnya or Afghanistan. The fettered were neither terrorists nor criminals. This allegedly happened in Louisiana and Texas, and the victims’ only offense appears to have been that they sought asylum in Donald Trump’s America.

“It’s reminiscent of Abu Ghraib,” says Luz Virginia Lopez, who spent two decades as a civil rights attorney in the US Justice Department and is now with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Lopez spearheads a federal class-action lawsuit, which the SPLC filed last year in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, on behalf of asylum seekers being held in the jurisdiction of the New Orleans Field Office of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The lawsuit argues that the plaintiffs, held indefinitely in detention, should have been released long ago to their sponsors: individuals who have agreed to take responsibility for the asylum seekers as their claims are being adjudicated — a practice known as “parole.” Instead, they’ve been held inside the world’s largest immigrant detention system, as were the Cameroonian singer and countless other Black refugees before being forcibly deported.

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“In the whole of my career, I’ve never seen anything like the lawlessness and corruption, the brutality and complete disregard for human life, the xenophobia and anti-Blackness,” says Lopez, who calls ICE’s New Orleans Field Office, which includes Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee, “a microcosm of the worst of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda.”

That district granted parole for asylum seekers three-quarters of the time in 2016. By 2018, the share dropped to 1.5 percent. Meanwhile, the number of beds in ICE detention facilities skyrocketed from 1,000 to about 13,000 in Louisiana alone, says Jeff Migliozzi of SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project.

These amount to civil and human rights violations by a government agency that operates, in collusion with a for-profit detention and deportation industry, with virtually no oversight or accountability. As the clock ticks down on the Trump administration, it’s urgent that we add these abuses to the list of savage injustices perpetrated against immigrants these last four years.

Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, says he’s “ashamed” of the outgoing administration’s actions. “We know that even as Cameroonian asylum seekers face grave danger in leaving the US, this administration continues to turn its back on them and knowingly send them into harm’s way,” he says.

On Nov. 24, all nine of Massachusetts’ US representatives joined with Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren to urge the acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, “to immediately halt the needless deportations of immigrants who pose no public safety threat.”

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Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland says he's "ashamed" that the country deported asylum seekers who had sponsors willing to take them in and that these people allege they were treated harshly in the process.
Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland says he's "ashamed" that the country deported asylum seekers who had sponsors willing to take them in and that these people allege they were treated harshly in the process.Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Thomas Cartwright, who spent 38 years as a financial executive before becoming an advocate for refugees, has pierced the veil of secrecy that shrouds immigrant deportations from the United States. Part of the watchdog group Witness at the Border, he started tracking ICE deportation flights in January, after seeing men, women, and children taken away, in five-point restraints, from the airport in Brownsville, Texas. The peak came in October, when the agency says it ran 113 international flights from airports nationwide, including a long-haul chartered flight to Africa.

That was the first “mass deportation” to Cameroon, says Sylvie Bello, chief executive of the Cameroon American Council. A second deportation of Cameroonians followed on Veterans Day, carrying the singer who says he was stuffed in a bag and several dozen others.

Asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola were also on those flights. The DRC, which has been in a humanitarian and security crisis for years, routinely silences any voices of opposition. And Cameroon — a country whose colonial legacy left it divided along linguistic lines — is embroiled in five armed conflicts, including a genocidal civil war in which the Francophone majority under 87-year-old President Paul Biya, who’s held his country’s top job for nearly four decades, seeks to crush an Anglophone separatist minority.

The asylum seekers told me they fled persecution in some form: torture, murder, mutilation of their children and other relatives, gender-based violence, and destruction of homes and villages. Most escaped first to Ecuador, which requires no visa, and then survived the harrowing journey along the migratory trail overland to the US-Mexico border, where they all lawfully requested safe haven in the United States.

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But instead of being processed for parole, they were cuffed like criminals and taken to prison, where they have languished for years — even, Lopez says, when they had iron-clad asylum cases and sponsors waiting to take them in.

One of the deported asylum seekers told me that on Oct. 6, he and five others were woken in the middle of the night at the Rio Grande Valley Detention Center in Laredo, Texas, and told to pack belongings that could fit into a plastic bag. They were bused to the Laredo airport and flown to Alexandria, La. There they met 80 to 90 other African nationals, according to written and oral statements of a dozen men caught up in the sweep. They had been rounded up from detention centers all over the country. But they say that it was only after they were at the Louisiana staging facility that they were told they were being deported.

Eight Cameroonians from Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., showed signs of physical abuse, according to an Oct. 7 complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Freedom for Immigrants, an immigrant advocacy group. As set down in the complaint, their eyes had been blackened and fingers broken. One man limped on a bloodied leg, which could be seen in a photograph sent to immigrant advocate Pat Leach via WhatsApp. The man’s leg was subsequently found to be broken.

ICE said in a statement that it “takes very seriously all allegations of employee misconduct and detainee mistreatment,” but it added that for now it considers the deportees’ testimony of physical abuse to be unsubstantiated and says it “should be treated with the greatest of skepticism.” Van Hollen, the Maryland senator, says he is “deeply disturbed” about the reports of mistreatment and is calling for “a full and thorough investigation.”

The asylum seekers’ stories are being brought to light by an ever-expanding network of attorneys, advocates, activists, immigrant rights groups, and family members, newly dubbed the Alliance in Defense of Black Immigrants. Because of their efforts, we know that four of the Cameroonians from the October flight are now locked up in a maximum-security prison in their home country. One man’s family bribed prison officials not to torture him; others managed to bribe their way out. A few still cannot be accounted for. The rest, including the singer, are in hiding.

One of the men returned to the DRC says he was held and tortured for a week. His family paid to get him released, after which he crossed the river into Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo. He declines to disclose his current location. At least two of the men are now hiding in Nigeria.

Days after the November deportation flight, Representative Karen Bass of California joined efforts by Senators Van Hollen and Markey to stop further expulsions to Cameroon. She introduced House Resolution 1221, “urging the US to uphold its commitments under international treaties related to refugees and asylum-seekers and halt deportations of Cameroonian citizens.” The bill now has 53 cosponsors, including Massachusetts Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Jim McGovern.

Meanwhile, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas is drafting legislation that would grant Temporary Protected Status to Cameroonian immigrants to the United States.

Yet in mid-December, I witnessed via WhatsApp and Facebook Live another deportation flight to Africa unfold, thanks to Cartwright and the Alliance. Its members, communicating directly with detained asylum seekers, signal to Cartwright when a group is being packed up for transfer. Cartwright then searches the FlightAware app to confirm the movements of deportation flights.

The December flight carried men and women to Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. As on the previous flights, some passengers still had asylum cases pending, which could make their deportation a violation of US law. But they were taken in chains, like criminals, and not relieved of their shackles until they reached the dangerous conditions they had fled, according to the returnees and witnesses. For the Angolans on the November flight, that would have meant more than 34 hours in five-point restraints.

The task that will soon face the Biden administration is to end indefinite, for-profit detention and the forced deportation of people whose only “crime” is to be seeking asylum in America. For the soul of our nation, these practices must stop, and the right to asylum must be restored in the United States, as per our historic international agreements.

Sarah Towle is a London-based American author who writes about immigration and human rights issues on Medium. Follow her on Twitter @HistoryTurnedOn.