Owning a small business in Cameroon selling French products was enough to trap the young man between the English-speaking minority and French-speaking majority government in the warring West African nation.
In July 2019, he was kidnapped by armed rebels, who tortured him for months in the jungle, demanding $10,000 ransom from his family, he said. Then, shortly after they paid, government forces arrested and tortured him for another month — for “financing” the separatists.
But what shocked him most, he said, was that after he escaped through a dozen countries and claimed asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, American officials detained him for almost a year, then threatened and assaulted him and put him in solitary confinement before deporting him back to Cameroon in late October.
“At that point, it’s like the end of the world,” he said, requesting anonymity because he is in hiding. “It’s a death plane. Even if there was a means to make that plane crash that day, we would’ve done it.”
During President Trump’s last weeks in office, Black and African asylum seekers say, the administration is ramping up deportations using assault and coercion, forcing them back to countries where they face harm, according to interviews with the immigrants, lawyers, lawmakers, advocates and a review of legal complaints by The Times.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security headquarters did not respond to requests for comment.
The allegations have shed light on a group of immigrants that has been targeted by the president's rhetoric and his policies to restrict asylum, but that is often overlooked. Relative to Mexicans and Central Americans, asylum seekers from Africa and the Caribbean make up a small but fast-growing proportion of the more than 16,000 immigrants in detention today across the United States, particularly in the for-profit prison archipelago in the American South that has proliferated under Trump.
Despite Trump’s all-out assault on asylum, explicit bias against Black asylum seekers, and border closures under the pretext of the pandemic, some 20,000 Haitians and Africans have journeyed from South America, largely on foot, to claim protection at the U.S.-Mexico border during Trump’s time in office, according to Mexico’s migration statistics.
President-elect Joe Biden has said he will end the use of for-profit immigration detention, reverse many of Trump’s policies that restrict asylum, and reform the U.S. immigration system. But Trump has left his successor with decades-long private-prison contracts; more than 400 executive actions on immigration; a record immigration court backlog of more than 1.2 million cases; and record-high asylum denial rates, reaching around 70% last month.
Since October, lawyers have filed multiple complaints with the Homeland Security Department’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Inspector General’s Office documenting the cases of at least 14 Cameroonian asylum seekers at four detention facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi who say ICE subjected them to coercion and physical abuse to force their deportations.
The complaints call for investigations and an immediate halt to the deportations, arguing that officials are violating U.S. and international law, including due process rights and the Convention Against Torture.
In that time, more than 100 asylum seekers also have reported ICE using or threatening force to put them on deportation flights, in particular to Haiti and West Africa, according to lawyers and calls received on a national immigration detention hotline run by the nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants.
The Times has interviewed nine asylum seekers, most from Cameroon, others from Haiti or Ethiopia, many of whom requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Five have been deported in the last month, and three remain detained after ICE attempted to remove them in recent weeks. One Cameroonian was released Monday after roughly 20 months in immigration detention.
They include teachers, law students, mothers, fathers, a 2-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, who have fled corrupt governments, political persecution, gang rape, torture by security forces, assassination attempts and arbitrary detention.
For many, deportation from the United States is a death sentence.
“I came to U.S. because I need to save my life because my life is in danger,” said a high school teacher who fled Ethiopia in 2017 after being jailed and beaten for supporting an opposition political party and student protests.
The teacher claimed asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on the California-Mexico border in 2018. But last month, while being held at the Adelanto ICE Processing Facility, after he refused to sign deportation papers, six ICE officers assaulted and forcibly fingerprinted him, he said, then sent him to the medical clinic.
His asylum case had been denied but was pending an appeal. Two days after the assault, he said, officers told him he’d be transferred. Instead, they took him to Los Angeles International Airport and deported him to Ethiopia, where he was immediately rearrested and now awaits a court hearing.
“ICE is something like racist because they are doing excessive force,” the teacher said. “In [a free] country I don’t expect these things.”
Many asylum seekers are well aware of Trump’s disparagement of Black immigrants. And many believe that ICE officials and detention guards share his prejudices.
As Trump leaves office, the “pattern and practice of physical and verbal coercion” by ICE officers and guards to force Black asylum seekers to sign deportation papers is worsening, according to the complaints filed to Homeland Security's Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Inspector General's offices.
Beyond threats, the tactics include shackling the immigrants, stripping them naked, holding them down and choking them, resulting in injuries, according to the complaints. Officials often committed the assaults out of sight of facility cameras, and in several instances filmed the assaults themselves, the complaints state.
Immigration detention is civil, not criminal, and ICE has the discretion to release detainees at any time. Most of the asylum seekers have family in the United States, and all have exercised their right to seek protection under U.S. law — meaning that many are being detained for years even though they have U.S. sponsors and haven't committed a crime.
Of the deportation flights to West Africa in October and November, at least a dozen on board had pending cases, according to lawyers.
In interviews with The Times, the asylum seekers said they sought protection in the United States because they believed it was the only place where they could be safe and free.
“We believe in freedom and in this country as a country that provides protection for people who are running for their lives — and instead upon arrival, for us to be imprisoned and caged?” said a Haitian mother detained with her husband and 2-year-old son at a Pennsylvania ICE facility.
Police officers in Haiti had targeted her and her husband for their involvement with the political opposition, beating and sexually assaulting her while she was pregnant, according to sworn legal statements. She miscarried before she fled.
Despite many countries shutting their borders amid the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE has recently increased the pace of deportations, including sending a flight to West Africa just days after the Nov. 3 election. In October, there were nearly 500 ICE Air Operations flights, a more than 10% increase since September, according to Witness at the Border. More than 1,300 Haitians were deported, said Guerline Jozef, president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance in California.
In recent years, Cameroonians have increasingly accounted for one of the largest groups of what U.S. officials call “extracontinental” migrants, as the conflict in Cameroon has widened.
One man, going by the initials K.S., said he fled because officials in Cameroon had asked him to work with them to capture Anglophone people. He refused; his wife and three children are from the English-speaking side.
He had been detained at the Imperial Regional Detention Facility east of San Diego for over two years when the final appeal on his asylum claim was denied — making him so depressed that he spent a week under medical observation.
He said the ICE officer assigned to his case advised him to sign paperwork agreeing to be deported. The officer said that if the Cameroonian government didn't accept ICE’s request to take him back, as was likely, he would be released to his U.S. sponsor after 90 days.
On Oct. 6, after 97 days had passed, six guards stood by as K.S. was ordered to pack up his things to leave.
“I didn’t think about deportation,” he said. “It was the last thought on my mind. They lied to me.”
ICE officers put him on a flight to Louisiana that picked up other Cameroonian deportees and then dropped the group off at the Prairieland Detention Facility in Texas. On Oct. 13, K.S. said, he was cuffed and taken to the airport, where he boarded a flight with about 100 other African migrants.
He watched as ICE officers strapped in three men from their shoulders to their ankles to restrict their movement and covered their heads with bags, then laid them across rows of seats in the plane.
Just as the flight was about to take off, K.S. and three other men were removed and taken back to Prairieland, without explanation.
Three weeks later, on Nov. 11, K.S. was back on a deportation flight with 27 other men. One, who was known to have heart problems, began crying that his chest was burning, K.S. said, an account confirmed to The Times by another passenger.
ICE ultimately removed the man and put him in an ambulance.
In contrast to Central Americans largely fleeing a lethal combination of gang violence, corruption, poverty and climate change, many Haitians and Africans have more traditional asylum claims that, at least in theory, better fit the categories outlined by an outdated U.S. asylum system largely conceived in the post-World War II era: persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.
Yet Black and African asylum seekers are less likely than other immigrants to be released on parole or bond, or to win their asylum cases — a racial disparity that has worsened under Trump, according to lawyers and government data.
From September 2019 to May 2020, comparing hundreds of release requests from detained Cubans, Venezuelans, Cameroonians and Eritreans, the non-Africans had grant rates roughly twice as high, said Mich Gonzalez, senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fewer than 4% of Cameroonian parole requests were granted.
ICE is also increasingly blanket-denying Black immigrants’ release for clearly bogus reasons, said Anne Rios, a supervising attorney in San Diego with the nonprofit Al Otro Lado.
For example, ICE rejected one request by claiming an applicant’s identity hadn’t been established, when the agency had the applicant and his identification documents in its custody, according to parole applications and denials provided by Rios and reviewed by The Times.
U.S. officials have faced more impediments to deporting Haitian and African asylum seekers due to limited diplomatic relationships with their homelands and more complicated deportation logistics exacerbated by coronavirus closures abroad.
But that hasn’t stopped them. The Trump administration has at times put enforcement before its own stated foreign policy, contradicting the State Department and U.S. law barring officials from returning people to harm or death.
Take Cameroon. Last year, the U.S. pulled back some military assistance amid reports of atrocities committed by security forces trained and supplied by the U.S. military for counterterrorism. The State Department travel advisory for Cameroon warns of “crime," "kidnapping," "terrorism" and "armed conflict.”
Rather than obtaining valid Cameroonian passports, ICE officials have issued Cameroonian deportees “laissez-passer” travel documents that are invalid, or even signed by individuals in the United States purporting to be Cameroonian officials, according to the October complaint.
The Cameroonian Embassy has told advocates they have not issued any such documents. But in September, ICE presented a laissez-passer to Pauline Binam, a Cameroonian woman the agency sought to deport as she accused a Georgia gynecologist of removing her fallopian tube without her consent. Binam, the airlines, and ultimately the Cameroonian government all rejected the document, issued by a minister in Houston who claimed to be an honorary consul.
The U.S. State Department also recently called on the government of Haiti to bring “long overdue justice” to perpetrators of the worst massacre in over a decade, when gangs with ties to powerful politicians tortured, raped and killed dozens two years ago.
In 2016, the police attack on the Haitian mother left her in a coma for eight days, according to an emergency motion to reopen her family’s case. She and her husband both had family in Haiti targeted and killed for their politics.
She later became pregnant with her son, who was born two years ago in the street in Chile after hospitals there turned the couple away because they are Black, lawyers say. Ultimately, the trio sought U.S. asylum in March near Tecate, east of San Diego. But U.S. immigration officials denied their claims based on a Trump administration policy that a federal judge would rule unlawful in June.
Bridget Cambria, one of the attorneys representing the Haitian mother and 63 others, including two dozen families at imminent risk of removal, said they appealed to the Circuit Court in Washington, D.C., Tuesday night. Wednesday morning, they were granted a temporary stay.
The Haitian woman said they had hoped to join family in Florida. Instead, her son remains in detention, suffering from a virus that manifests in sores over his body and mouth.
“No child, no baby, should be kept in a place like this,” she said.
Such a release is increasingly rare, but not impossible. Halley, the Cameroonian asylum seeker released Monday after some 20 months, had refused to sign deportation papers he called his “death warrant.” ICE pulled him off the November deportation flight, but then denied him parole a week ago. Now, he’s with family in Maryland.
"That day was another new birthday for me; I could not believe it," he said Wednesday.
Meanwhile in Cameroon, K.S. and many other U.S. deportees remain stuck, hopeless and effectively stateless.
“I’m ready to die now,” he said. “If they are going to take me, no problem. I am already dead.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.