ICE uses physical abuse, solitary confinement and false documents to force Black and African asylum seekers onto ‘death planes,’ The Times has found through interviews and legal documents.
WASHINGTON — 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 escaping through a dozen countries and claiming 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 in late October back to Cameroon.
“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 who have been targeted both by the president’s rhetoric and his policies to restrict asylum, but are 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.
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President-elect Joe Biden has said he would end the use of for-profit immigration detention, reverse many of Trump’s policies to 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 last month, 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 were allegedly subjected to coercion and physical abuse by ICE to force their deportation. The complaints call for investigations and an immediate halt to the deportations, arguing that officials are violating U.S. and international law, including the Convention Against Torture and due process rights.
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 nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants.
The Times has interviewed nine asylum seekers, most from Cameroon, as well as Haiti and 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.K., a high school teacher who fled Ethiopia in 2017 after being jailed and beaten for supporting the political opposition party and student protests.
A.K. 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 LAX and deported him to Ethiopia, where he was immediately rearrested and now awaits a court hearing.