“When they arrived, they pepper sprayed me in the eyes and … strangled me almost to the point of death. I kept (saying) ‘I can’t breathe.’ I almost died. I was coughing so much after and my throat still hurts a lot. I can’t see well still from the pepper spray. As a result of the physical violence, they were able to forcibly obtain my fingerprint on the document.”
These are the words a Cameroonian held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Mississippi, used to describe the abuse he suffered at the hands of U.S. immigration officials. On Oct.13, ICE deported 60 people from Cameroon seeking asylum in the United States, including five men who formally brought forward allegations of torture, continuing a troubling pattern of ICE removing key witnesses to abuse in order to undermine investigations and potentially absolve themselves of any accountability.
The United States has both a domestic and an international responsibility to investigate claims of abuse within ICE detention, racial bias within the U.S. asylum system as a whole, and the fate of those deported back to danger. Without a credible investigation, and accompanying accountability measures, U.S. immigration policy will continue to undermine ongoing efforts of U.S. diplomats and policymakers to ensure the protection of civilians and to support an end to civil conflict in Cameroon, with implications for U.S. foreign policy both in the Central African region and globally.
In early October, Freedom for Immigrants, in partnership with seven state and national advocacy organizations, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detailing credible allegations of extreme use of force in order to coerce Cameroonian migrants seeking asylum to abandon their claims and sign deportation papers. Those who reported this abuse describe the acts as torture and stated they feared for their lives if they were deported to Cameroon.
In response, members of Congress called for an immediate investigation by the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a halt to deportations to Cameroon, and increased transparency regarding denial rates for Cameroonians seeking asylum in comparison to other nationalities. Despite these requests, ICE deported 60 people from Cameroon and 28 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on Oct/ 13.
Following this deportation flight, on Nov. 5, Freedom for Immigrants and the Southern Poverty Law Center submitted a second complaint detailing additional allegations of abuse. The complaint included accounts of forcible stripping of detained women and continued use of physical force to coerce detained people seeking asylum to sign deportation papers. Again, Democrats in Congress called for investigations into these allegations, and a halt to deportations to Cameroon. And again, ICE ignored elected officials’ demands. On Nov. 11, ICE proceeded with another deportation flight to several African countries, including Cameroon.
Many of the Cameroonians on board the Oct. 13 and Nov. 11 deportation flights had asylum claims pending in U.S. immigration court. Many Cameroonians currently detained in ICE jails and prisons cite the on-going conflict between Anglophone separatists and the Cameroonian government as their reason for fleeing their home country. An estimated 3,000 civilians have died and 730,000 people have been displaced since the onset of the crisis in October 2016. On numerous occasions, Congress and the Department of State and have issued statements condemning attacks against civilians. Most recently, on Oct. 24, the U.S. Embassy in Yaoundé issued a statement condemning attacks by armed individuals on a primary school that resulted in the deaths of small children. On Nov. 6, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy issued a statement positioning the Cameroonian Diaspora as a critical voice in supporting on-going conflict resolution efforts.
In detention, the Cameroonian diaspora held by ICE have been at the forefront of internal organizing efforts, regularly leading peaceful protests against racism and their indefinite detention. For Black immigrants, the everyday injustices in ICE custody are compounded by anti-Black racism and disparate outcomes in immigration court. People seeking asylum while detained are far more likely to be deported than people pursuing a claim from outside of detention. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, asylum seekers from Cameroon are 2.5 times less likely to be granted release on parole from the New Orleans ICE Field Office than people seeking asylum from non-African countries. A recent report by Human Rights First demonstrates that overall asylum approval rates for Cameroonians plummeted from approximately 76 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2019 to 29.4 percent in fiscal year 2020.
For the embattled government of Cameroonian President Paul Biya, the Oct. 13 and Nov. 11 deportation flights represented a political opportunity he has successfully exploited. Prior to the flight leaving the United States, government-lead protests in front of the U.S. Embassy in Yaoundé called on the U.S. government to either criminally charge or deport asylum seekers who they alleged were backers of Anglophone separatists. Unsurprisingly, Biya’s government leapt to put a positive spin on the news of the Oct. 13 flight, with Cameroon State media projecting messages that the asylum seekers’ return represented an opportunity to heal divisions and rebuild the country. Pro-Biya media and commenters in online forums characterized asylum seekers as liars and terrorists who attempted to smear the reputation of the Cameroonian government overseas.
Freedom for Immigrants and partner organizations have received numerous reports from people on board the Oct. 13 flight that their identity documents were confiscated upon arrival in Cameroon, and they are unable to move freely within the country. Many report that they have been forced into hiding and fear being detained again. Family members of several people on board the flight report their loved ones are unaccounted for and fear that they may have been re-detained by security forces. At least two people on the flight were re-arrested upon arrival, and one man reported being questioned regarding his political affiliations and beaten by State security forces.
The co-option of the deportation flights by the Biya government for its own political agenda illustrates how Trump’s immigration policy increasingly undermines U.S. foreign policy goals. On the one hand, U.S. government officials call Afor Cameroonian security forces to immediately stop attacks against civilians and for the resumption of peace talks. On the other hand, U.S. immigration officials are deporting asylum seekers, who report abuse at the hands of Cameroonian security forces. This takes place without any investigation of the high rate of asylum denials among Black immigrants or the credible claims of torture within ICE detention. Plus, there is no apparent plan to monitor the well-being of people being returned to danger. What incentives, therefore, is the United States providing for Biya to rein in his security forces and come to the negotiating table?
This dynamic has played out in other countries and regions. The U.S. government called for Cuba to release political prisoners while subjecting Cubans fleeing the country to seek asylum in the United States to indefinite detention. The State Department is issuing statements of shock and condemnation in response to reports that the Chinese government is subjecting Muslim women in Xinjiang to forced sterilizations, while the U.S. government is deporting women in ICE detention who report they were also subjected to forced gynecological surgeries, including hysterectomies.
Advocates and policy makers on both sides of the political aisle increasingly acknowledge the need to address “root causes of migration” and examine the ways in which foreign policy impacts migration as a key component of immigration reform. However, the stark contrast between the Trump administration’s bigoted and xenophobic immigration agenda and its stated objectives in defending human rights and democracy abroad has increasingly weakened U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration—to the detriment of vulnerable populations and to the benefit of authoritarian regimes.
To send a strong message that Trump adviser Stephen Miller no longer sets U.S. foreign policy priorities or immigration policy, the Biden administration should urgently prioritize investigations into allegations of abuse within immigration detention, bias within the asylum court system, and the fate of people who sent back to danger in their home countries. These investigations should be combined with a moratorium on all deportations, in recognition that the enforcement-detention-deportation apparatus is inherently flawed and rife with abuse.
These actions would serve as a critical first step in living up to campaign promises and ensuring that the United States is in compliance with its international human rights treaty obligations. Both the abuses suffered by Cameroonian asylum seekers in detention, and the very act of deporting them, could constitute violations of the Convention Against Torture, of which the United States is a signatory. Signaling that the United States is committed to walking the walk domestically with regards to its treaty obligations is a critical step toward growing U.S. credibility as a champion of human rights overseas.
Without investigations into these allegations of horrific abuse in immigration detention—and accountability for any crimes discovered—authoritarian leaders will have little incentive to heed diplomatic condemnations for human rights abuses happening in their countries. If the United States is not concerned enough to end to torture at home, American expressions of concern will be rendered meaningless abroad.
Image: A Honduran immigration detainee, his feet shackled and shoes laceless as a security precaution, boards a deportation flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on February 28, 2013 in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images