Foreign Policy

The USA has failed Cameroonian asylum seekers

When Franklin Agbor, a former Cameroonian gendarme, disobeyed an order to kill civilians, he was called a turncoat. Agbor patrolled the southwestern region of Cameroon, which Anglophone separatists view as part of a breakaway state. His decision not to pull the trigger on behalf of the national government carried a death sentence. With his life in imminent danger under the authoritarian regime of President Paul Biya, the soldier had no choice but to flee Cameroon.

Within a few weeks, 33-year-old Agbor left his wife and two young children and flew to Ecuador via Nigeria. He traveled through Central America to Mexico and braved mountains and jungles. He finally threw himself up for asylum at the Laredo border crossing with the United States in October 2019. Agbor fled to "pursue a brighter future," said his brother-in-law Nzombella Atemlefack, who lives in the United States.

But he didn't find that. Instead, Agbor spent 13 months in custody at Jackson Parish Correctional Center in Louisiana, where he was denied asylum and parole. His treatment there was "without a conscience," said Atemlefack. In custody during the coronavirus pandemic, Agbor faced high risk – minimal access to medical treatment, no social distancing, no personal protective equipment, and no testing – even when his colleagues signed COVID-19. And like other Cameroonian asylum seekers, Agbor was beaten by immigration officials who forced him to sign his own deportation papers.

Since Cameroon got into civil war in 2016, more than 400,000 people have fled ethnic and political persecution and thousands have sought asylum in the United States. Many were instead arrested by the Immigration and Customs Service (ICE). They suffer from conditions that proponents say violate international norms for the treatment of refugees – and reflect the apparent inequalities for black migrants in the immigration system. Despite civilian demonstrations led by Cameroonians at ICE facilities across the country this year, the poor conditions have only worsened.

The inhumane treatment comes despite the United States' role in the civil war in Cameroon. In addition to their colonial legacies, Western countries fueled the flames of the crisis by indirectly funding the tracking of Anglophones with funds for infrastructure and counter-terrorism operations. While the White House denounced the Biya government in 2018, the US donated military helicopters, turboprop jets and drones to its arsenal. Cameroonians have fled a crisis, in part shaped by the West, to meet hostility on American shores.

Still, those who stay in the United States might be considered lucky. ICE has deported dozens of Cameroonians since October: 57 Cameroonians were repatriated and taken into military custody on October 13, and 37 others – including Agbor – followed on November 11. According to families, nothing has been heard in prisons since then with maximum security. Some have disappeared. Proponents say another deportation flight is planned for December 15th.

After the first deportations, several US lawmakers signed letters expressing "serious concerns" about the situation of Cameroonian inmates and the behavior of ICE. In November, MP Karen Bass tabled a House resolution calling for an immediate suspension of expulsions and an investigation into the allegations by the Justice Department. But as the abuse and deportations continue, the fate of Cameroonian asylum seekers shows how the politicized U.S. immigration system has preferred militarization to mercy.

The excitement started in Texas. In February, 140 Cameroonian women protested conditions such as medical neglect at T. Don Hutto Detention Center, which had previously been investigated by the FBI for sexual abuse. Prisoners at other facilities soon joined, triggered by the potentially fatal consequences of COVID-19. Between March and August, Cameroonians held hunger strikes against discriminatory treatment and a lack of pandemic precaution in Pine Prairie, a facility in Louisiana. In September, Pauline Binam, a Cameroonian woman, was one of the whistleblowers charged with forced hysterectomies and other medical abuse at an ICE facility in Georgia.

"It seemed like ICE had had enough of us," said Martha Nfonteh, a Cameroon American Council attorney whose brother participated in the Pine Prairie protests.

Since the protests, inmates have said it has only gotten worse. Godlove Nswohnonomi, a welder who fled Cameroon in 2018 after falling into the crossfire of conflict, joined the Pine Prairie protests after more than a year in ICE detention and felt the poor conditions at the facility "put his life in clear danger. “But he watched as his comrades were sprayed with pepper, beaten, put in solitary confinement and threatened with deportation. "The way (the ICE officers) looked at us and talked to us, we felt very threatened," said Nswohnonomi.

Detainees across the country have experienced a similar pattern of physical violence, emotional abuse, and medical neglect. Of the 23 prisoners interviewed by foreign policy in the past two months, almost all had similar stories: punishment by ICE officials, lack of due process, and inability to get justice in a judicial system that appears to be against them to search. Twelve have since been deported. (ICE officials did not respond to multiple requests for comments on these and other allegations.)

To expedite these deportations, ICE has taken coercive measures to force detainees to sign their own papers – ostensibly to accept their deportation before they are deported. In September, ICE separated the protesters from Pine Prairie and sent them to facilities in distant states. Ivo Fogap, who participated in the protests, was on a bus to LaSalle, another detention center in Louisiana for those on the verge of eviction. The bus was full and several inmates had symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Then Fogap said he understood ICE's intention: "To put our lives in danger by staying here."

ICE has a history of medical mismanagement: in 2017, a report by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security described health care issues that "undermine the protection of inmates' rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment." "Before COVID, our immigration system made people sick," said Amy Zeidan, a doctor and co-founder of the Society of Asylum Medicine, which conducts medical examinations for inmates. "The virus only made things worse."

At LaSalle, several people were immediately isolated and the rest were placed in a 70-person dormitory, where many developed a fever and cough. One inmate, Valdano Tebid, said he had COVID-19 symptoms, but it was six days before he received a diagnosis that likely exposed his roommates. After 10 days in quarantine, he was released back into the general population – less time than recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leonard Ataubo, a 23-year-old inmate diagnosed with gastric cancer in Pine Prairie, has yet to see a doctor or start treatment for the disease since his diagnosis, putting him at high risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19.

In Prairieland, a facility in Texas, inmates report similar conditions. Anonymous callers to a Freedom for Immigrants advocacy hotline reported that ICE officials forced them to drink water from the toilet, put them in solitary confinement, physically abused them and denied them adequate treatment for COVID-19. After being transferred to the River Correctional Center in Louisiana, Nswohnonomi tested positive for tuberculosis in July. He believes he contracted Pine Prairie while in ICE detention. The disease makes him more susceptible to COVID-19, but he hasn't been given any medication – a doctor told him he would be deported soon anyway, he said.

The experiences of Cameroonian asylum seekers reflect greater inequalities that black migrants to the US face. Immigration officials have historically used punitive measures such as solitary confinement against incarcerated black migrants up to six times higher than the rest of the population. Likewise, medical mismanagement and neglect can disproportionately affect black migrants who are exposed to the unconscious bias of doctors.

Despite the extraordinary conditions and health risks, the legal process for Cameroonian prisoners was elusive. Pandemic-related court closings have delayed and canceled hearings, leaving parole, probation, bail and humanitarian release out of reach – even for those whose conditions make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and therefore eligible for release. Officials thought several inmates were simply “ineligible”: probation was reserved for pregnant women and children or people with immediate families in the US – statements that are inconsistent with ICE policy.

Sylvie Bello, the founder of the Cameroon American Council, suggests that there are financial motives for the private companies that operate the facilities, as well as for the remote regions where the facilities are major local employers and consumers. "These little, little towns in Louisiana have benefited from black slaves from slavery," Bello said. "The detention of immigrants is just the latest version."

The prisoners' reports fit historical patterns. In fiscal 2020, the median loan granted to Cameroonians was 25 percent more expensive than the broader population facing immigration proceedings. Black migrants are more likely than other population groups to be expelled in deportation procedures. In recent months, Cameroonians have increasingly faced other obstacles. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, the asylum refusal rate for Cameroonians has increased from around 19 percent in 2019 to around 45 percent in 2020. The deportation rate of Cameroonians has also increased, from 22 percent in fiscal 2019 to 35 percent in 2019 fiscal 2020.

In addition, proponents fear that ICE has intentionally moved Cameroonians to antagonistic legal districts. For example, any immigration judge in Jena, Louisiana, with jurisdiction that spans the state, denies asylum at a rate of 90 percent or more. Nathan Bogart, an immigration attorney who works with the court frequently, said his "tough" approach symbolizes the recent changes that the courts of the south have armed for deportation. "There have always been questions about whether people of color are treated differently," said Bogart, citing the court as one of the reasons why black migrants are facing a "tough battle" for asylum.

Calisus Fon, an asylum seeker detained in the Rio Grande Detention Center in Texas, called the system "pure racism." His first credible fear interview – the most important step towards asylum – was approved, but over a dozen requests for release have since been ignored or denied. Meanwhile, Central American friends at the facility have been granted parole. "All of these efforts to send me home just mean that they want me to die," said Fon. "I think that's why they treat us the way they are here."

On November 11, Fon joined Agbor, Fogap, and dozen others when he was deported to Cameroon. His requests to be sent anywhere were refused. "These people came to America in one piece," said Nfonteh, whose brother is still in prison. "You go back broken, body and soul."

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