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Cameroonian Immigrants Say They Were Beaten, Pepper-sprayed, Forced To Sign Deportation Documents

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Bobbi-Jeanne Misick
/
WWNO
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) New Orleans Field Office. Nov. 26, 2020.

This story has been updated throughout to include a statement from CoreCivic. 

Cameroonian immigrants held at detention centers under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) New Orleans Field Office say officers and facility staff members pepper-sprayed, beat, forcefully restrained, and humiliated them to make them sign travel documents related to their deportation.

That’s according to two official complaints that nonprofit organizations Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Freedom For Immigrants filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

The first complaint, dated Oct. 7, 2020, detailed the use-of-force against eight Cameroonian immigrants at Adams County Correctional Center, a private detention center in Natchez, Miss. It’s owned by CoreCivic, which owns and operates prisons and detention centers all over the United States.

CoreCivic denies the allegations, calling them "completely false" in a statement to WWNO. 

The second complaint, dated Nov. 5, was about the use-of-force against six Cameroonians housed at Jackson Parish Correctional Center in Jonesboro, Louisiana — owned by private company Lasalle Corrections.

Complaints Say Officers Violently Forced Immigrants to Sign Deportation Documents

“A man I didn’t know came out to the yard with a form and asked me to sign. He worked for ICE,” one asylum-seeker identified as CA testified in the Oct. 7 complaint.

CA was living in Adams County Correctional Center. He said he told the ICE officer he wished to speak to his attorney first. Later that day he was called to the medical facility.

“When I go to medical, they start saying they want to give me a COVID-19 test, and I told them I took a test two weeks ago and [the] result was negative,” CA told New Orleans Public Radio during a phone call last week. “They changed the story again. They started saying that they want to move me to another facility. So those explanations were seriously inconsistent. It was just because they wanted to accomplish what they already had in their plans.”

Based on the complaint, it appears their plans were to get the eight detainees to sign or provide their fingerprints for their travel documents, even if it meant using force.

CA alleges that six Adams County officers and four ICE officers forced him and the others to the ground. They pepper-sprayed them in the eyes, he said, and one man identified as a security officer at Adams County Correctional Center named Mr. Green broke his finger. His testimony said that by the end of the ordeal, multiple fingers were broken.

“I was crying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ because they were forcefully on top of me pressing their body weight on top of me,” his testimony reads.

CA said they dragged him to a dorm known as Zulu and forced his hand open and pressed his thumb into an ink pad and then onto the travel document. His hands and feet were cuffed at the time.

Another man identified as BJ, also seeking asylum, said that on the same day in the facility’s kitchen, where he works as a porter, an ICE officer approached him with the travel document. The documents are required for Cameroon to accept immigrants being repatriated to the West African country. The officer told him to sign.

“He told me in that kitchen that if I don’t do that he’s gonna use force on me to do that,” BJ said over the phone.

Then he too was called to the medical unit where he saw CA and some others. He said that ICE officers called in off-duty Adams County Correctional Center staff, including Mr. Green to assist in forcefully obtaining signatures or fingerprints on the travel documents.

The officers then pepper-sprayed the detainees and began to restrain them.

“One of the guys held my neck until I was not breathing. I kept complaining that I am not breathing. And the pepper spray was in my eyes. I was not seeing anything,” BJ said.

In the testimony in his complaint, BJ identified the man who choked him as Mr. Green.

“Mr. Green strangled me almost to the point of death,” his complaint testimony read. “... I was coughing so much after and my throat still hurts a lot.”

According to BJ, he and the others were then taken to an isolation unit, where BJ remembers being pushed in a shower with cold water. He said officers at the facility handcuffed him, locked him in a room, and forced his thumbprint on the document by using the handcuffs to drag his hand through the space under the room’s door.

He said that no one helped him wash the pepper spray from his eyes except for a nurse who gave him eye drops and informed him that the facility does not have an ophthalmologist. His eyes continued to hurt days after the incident.

CoreCivic, in a statement to WWNO, said the allegations detailed by SPLC in their Oct. 7 complaint are "completely false." 

"On September 27, three of the detainees assaulted CoreCivic staff, and they were subdued. There were no injuries as a result, and no additional altercations. Each of the detainees was seen by medical personnel after the incident," the statment reads. 

CoreCivic also said that the company does not have "any say whatsoever" in deciding who gets deported or released.  Those decisions, according to the private prison company, are made by the federal government.  

SPLC Says ICE is Targeting Black Immigrants

The New Orleans field office includes facilities in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

CA said that while the group that forced him, BJ and other Cameroonian immigrants’ thumbprints on their travel documents included both ICE officers and Adams County Correctional officers, it appeared the ICE officers were in charge.

“They (Adams County officers) told me if ICE tells them they should do something, they’re going to do it. So that shows that they were working from the command of what ICE told them to do.” CA said on the phone.

“Throughout the New Orleans regional field office we are seeing significant uses of force against Black immigrants,” Senior Supervising Attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project at the SPLC Luz Lopez said.

Lopez said most of the Black immigrants in detention in the New Orleans Field Office region are Cameroonians. New Orleans Public Radio has requested the data on Cameroonian Immigrants in the field office jurisdiction but has not yet received that information.

“Because Cameroonians make up the largest share of immigrants from Africa and Black immigrants in general, they are being disproportionately victimized,” Lopez said.

The Latest Abuse Is Linked To COVID-19

These incidents of force are linked to COVID-19, Lopez said. Even months after the pandemic began to spread in the United States, ICE was deporting detainees to their countries of origin. Then in late May and early June, “the ICE deportation machine ground to a halt,” Lopez said.

Countries were refusing to accept deportees in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, as detention facilities were breeding grounds for the virus.

Then in August, as restrictions all over the world began to ease, countries agreed to accept deportees again. And in September, “my colleagues were contacted — they started to hear horrific stories from Cameroonians particularly who told of being pretty much beaten and tortured so they would sign these deportation forms,” Lopez said

These forms that detainees are being asked to sign are not deportation orders, immigration attorney John Guevara, who is representing BJ and CA in their asylum filings, explained. They are documents that Cameroon requires deportees to sign in order to accept them.

Guevara says refusing to sign these documents does come with consequences.

“There are criminal charges and civil sanctions for not cooperating and not assisting in their own removal,” Guevara said. “That’s what’s puzzling and troubling about the use of force, any degree of force to get a signature on a travel document. The law already provides punishment, so why is force necessary?”

Cameroonian Asylum Seekers Say They Have Good Reason to Refuse Signing Travel Documents

Almost all of the Cameroonians in detention that are seeking asylum are members of the English-speaking or Anglophone minority in the country’s southern region who have fled persecution from the Francophone government’s military police. Separatists groups in the Anglophone area had attempted to establish the region as a sovereign nation called Ambazonia. The military police have attacked Anglophone Cameroonians who appear to express any sympathy toward the separatists. Both BJ, a carpenter, and CA, a university student, say they were captured, detained, beaten, released and later hunted down by the military police in Cameroon. They said if they were returned to Cameroon, they would be held and killed.

“We cannot send folks back to Cameroon,” Lopez said. “They’re in the midst of a violent civil war.”

The U.S. State Department’s 2019 Country Report on Cameroon reads, “There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary and unlawful killings through excessive use of force in the execution of official duties. … Amnesty International and HRW documented several cases in which security forces severely mistreated political opponents, and others where armed separatists mistreated civilians and members of defense forces.”

“That is why these asylum seekers came to the U.S.,” Lopez said.

How African Asylum Seekers Get to the U.S.

To get to the United States, BJ, who left behind his wife and children, travelled through Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico, eventually arriving at the Tijuana-California border. This is a common route for Cameroonians who end up seeking asylum in the U.S. CA took a similar path but entered the U.S. at the Texas-Mexico border. In his travels, BJ said, he was robbed. Both men said they saw dead bodies in the Panama Jungle.

Both men were transferred from the ICE detention centers in the states where they first arrived to Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, another CoreCivic detention center in Mississippi and part of the New Orleans Field Office’s portfolio.

SPLC has alleged that ICE deliberately sends African immigrants to the New Orleans Field Office region to ensure that they will be less likely to receive asylum and less likely to be released on parole during the asylum process. In 2018 the New Orleans Field Office granted only two out of 130 asylum seekers parole. The SPLC sued the field office in 2019 for failure to grant parole.

Before asylum seekers can be paroled, they must first prove to an asylum officer that they fear that they will be persecuted if they are sent back to their countries of origin. Both BJ and CA received their credible fear screenings in Tallahatchie, not in the detention centers where they first entered the immigration system. They both received negative credible fear determinations and were subject to deportation.

Detainees Were Restrained, Attacked And Then Deported.

In the weeks after the incidents at Adams County and Jackson Parish Correctional Centers, Cameroonian detainees were transported to Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas, Southwest of Dallas, where they were scheduled to be deported from. All 14 of the detainees who testified in the SPLC complaints were taken to Prairieland and many of them were deported on two separate flights in October and November. Lopez said the people who were sent back are likely in danger and will be hard to track.

“We don’t know what’s happened to some of the men that have been returned. The country is in upheaval,” Lopez said.

BJ and CA almost met the same fate. The two were taken to Prairieland and were scheduled for removal on the October flight. According to Guevara, as they were getting ready to present themselves for deportation, ICE officers told them they wouldn’t be boarding the plane after all.

Guevara and his team have since appealed their credible fear determinations with the Board of Immigration Appeals and CA recently received a reversal, meaning that he now has a positive credible fear determination. BJ’s appeal was denied again. Guevara and his team have filed another appeal.

They have been sent back to Adams County Correctional Center, where they say ICE officers seem to be rotated in and out of every month. The ICE officers who they say used force against them in September are no longer at the facility. However, the CoreCivic staff members remain employed at the facility.

“I feel very bad when I see the people who did that to me; I feel I will be in that again.” BJ said.

On the phone CA identified the altercation with the officers as an injustice.

“I have not committed any crime,” he said multiple times. “And I didn’t do anything bad that I deserve what they did to me that day.”

Both CA and BJ say now they keep their distance from the CoreCivic staff.

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