Accusing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement of “crimes against humanity,” civil rights attorneys with three organizations filed Freedom of Information Act requests on Monday, demanding information on the federal government’s use of excessive force and coercion to deport asylum seekers.
The requests were submitted by lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, Project South, and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of several refugees from Cameroon. The Alliance in Defense of Black Immigrants worked with the groups to file the requests.
“The government’s mass deportations of Cameroonian and other Black immigrants [are] inhumane and targeted,” said Samah Sisay, an attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“Black asylum seekers, many of whom faced political persecution in their home countries, referred to their deportation as a ‘death flight.’ These crimes against humanity are unforgivable, and we must never allow them to happen again.”
—Azadeh Shahshahani, Project South
According to the asylum seekers’ complaints, ICE agents used pepper spray and, in some cases, methods of torture, to force them to sign deportation paperwork between August 2020 and January 2021, in the last months of the Trump administration.
“I said I didn’t want to sign a deportation order,” one Cameroonian asylum seeker wrote in a civil rights complaint (pdf) filed with the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG). “I said I am afraid to go back to my country. [An ICE agent] promised me he would torture me… He pressed my neck into the floor. I said, ‘Please, I can’t breathe.’ I lost my blood circulation.”
Last year, the U.S. government deported an unknown number of Cameroonians and other African refugees, sending them back to their home countries to potentially face violence and persecution. Many of the asylum seekers had pending trials in immigration court.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands have been displaced in the past several years amid violence perpetrated by separatists and the armed group Boko Haram.
According to Human Rights Watch, people who are deported to Cameroon “face a serious risk of abuse by government security forces because they may be assumed to have links to separatists, or from the separatists themselves.”
“The government must atone for the appalling human rights abuses it has committed within its abominable immigrant prison and deportation apparatus. Black asylum seekers, many of whom faced political persecution in their home countries, referred to their deportation as a ‘death flight,'” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director of Project South. “These crimes against humanity are unforgivable, and we must never allow them to happen again.”
In February, more than 40 members of Congress wrote to President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, calling on them to grant temporary protected status to Cameroonians and place an 18-month pause on their deportations.
“Country conditions in Cameroon are both extraordinary and temporary, making return untenable and warranting immediate protections for Cameroonians living in the United States,” the letter said.
Although former President Donald Trump’s term is over, the attorneys said Monday, President Joe Biden must take responsibility for ensuring that asylum seekers from Cameroon and other countries are not put in harm’s way.
The abuse of Black immigrants by the U.S. “cannot simply be swept under the rug with the change in government,” said Luz Lopez, a senior supervising attorney with the SPLC.
“If we are to take the new administration at their word that they are creating a more fair and humane immigration system, they must exercise transparency, cooperate with a full investigation, and work to ensure these abuses cannot occur in the future,” she added.