The asylum-seeker from Cameroon said he resisted when guards insisted that he sign what he was told were deportation papers. They wanted his fingerprints.
His thumb and index finger were broken in a struggle in September at the Mississippi lock-up.
Within days, he and other Cameroonians were transferred to the Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, a rural town southwest of Dallas. There, he and one other Cameroonian are waiting to hear about a complaint filed this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others that alleges their civil rights were violated by physical abuse that amounted to torture in Mississippi.
“I’m just trying to hold onto another day,” the man said in a phone interview with The Dallas Morning News. He’s known as C.A. in a civil rights complaint to the Department of Homeland Security. He asked that his name be withheld because he fears more persecution if he’s deported to his birth country.
His dramatic story raises questions about what happens to people in the sprawling and secretive civil justice system that governs immigrants. Five of the eight immigrants who are part of the complaints are believed to have been deported after it was filed. C.A. and one other are detained at Prairieland and one man in the complaint is still in Mississippi.
C.A. and one other immigrant detained at Prairieland are among the eight Cameroonians who are part of the complaint. One complainant is still being held in Mississippi. Five others are believed to have been deported after the civil rights complaint was filed.
Attorneys and advocates are concerned that they’ve been deported back to a violent conflict-torn nation while their allegations are still under investigation.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, is in charge of detention and deportations. Bryan D. Cox, a New Orleans-based ICE spokesman, cast doubt on the allegations of what happened at the Natchez, Mississippi detention center, but didn’t refute the allegations with details.
“Sensationalist unsubstantiated allegations are irresponsible,” Cox said in an email. He declined to comment on specific cases in the complaint sent to two oversight agencies within DHS, citing ICE policy.
Torn by war
Crime, kidnapping, terrorism and armed conflict are common in Cameroon, a nation of 25 million ruled by the same president for almost four decades. The U.S. State Department advises against travel to large portions of the country, citing rising violence between supporters of the French-speaking region and a separatist movement of English-speaking Cameroonians. The report also details unlawful or arbitrary killings of civilians and the rise of Boko Haram and ISIS fighters.
“Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces,” says a State Department report from late September.
Nearly 700,000 people have been displaced and several thousand have been killed since the conflict began, according to Amnesty International. Over the weekend, seven schoolchildren were killed in an English-speaking region of Cameroon and at least 12 others were injured by gunmen. The U.S. embassy in Cameroon denounced the bloodshed: “The heinous, despicable act shows contempt for innocent lives which most represent the hope of a positive future. The violence must stop now…”
The constant tumult led C.A. to flee his homeland. C.A. participated in two peaceful protests as a university student, which may have caught the military’s attention, his attorney said. But his client wasn’t part of the separatist movement, which includes armed groups, he said.
C.A. said he didn’t join those fighting for a separate English-speaking nation, but his parents were pressured for information about him. “I knew there was no hiding place for me,” he said. “We are not running from anything but persecution and torture.”
When his parents were attacked, a relative made arrangements to get him out of the country. He boarded a flight to Ecuador and walked north with others.
Some didn’t make it, he says. The treacherous jungles of the Darien Gap of Panama claimed lives through dehydration and snake bites.
Eventually, he made it to Tapachula in southern Mexico, where many immigrants are now clustered, and to the Rio Grande Valley, where he asked for asylum in the U.S. in November of 2019.
C.A.’s story is difficult to corroborate. But in phone interviews with five other Cameroonians, they detailed a similar arduous passage through South America and into Panama and Mexico. (Four of those Cameroonians were deported on Oct. 13.)
The revolving door for Cameroonians who arrive in the U.S. and are deported, their asylum claims rejected or set aside for technical reasons, has been spinning much faster under the Trump administration. The number of Cameroonians in deportation proceedings quadrupled this past year to about 2,100 from five years ago.
Black immigrants have it particularly rough in detention, said Ruth Hargrove, a San Diego immigration attorney and a former law school professor in touch with other attorneys who represent Cameroonian clients. “Let’s face it: Black lives really, really don’t matter.”
The Embassy of Cameroon in Washington, D.C., didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment about the treatment of their citizens in U.S. detention centers.
C.A. arrived at the Adams County Correctional Facility in Natchez, Mississippi, and was detained with the seven other Cameroonians who later became part of the civil rights complaints.
At the Mississippi lock-up, C.A. said he was taken one day to a room known by detainees as “Zulu.” He insisted on speaking to his attorney, the complaint said. Then, he was grabbed and forced on the ground and pepper sprayed in the eyes. “I was crying, ‘I can’t breathe’ because they were forcefully on top of me pressing their body weight on top of me.”
Then, he says, he was dragged with two others into the Zulu unit. He said he was forced into a chair in a room and an officer forced his neck on a table. “I was crying, “I need to talk to my attorney,” the complaint said.
That is when they forced open his palm. Some of his fingers were broken, the complaint said. And he was forced to put his fingerprint onto a paper.
Shreveport, La.-based attorney John Guevara believes that detention staff were trying to get detainees to sign travel documents required by the Cameroon government.
Guevara represents C.A. and another client who was at the Mississippi facility and who is part of the civil rights violation complaint. Both men are still at Prairieland. Guevara said he believes they have not yet been deported because their accounts were the most egregious of the eight immigrants allegedly abused in the complaint. ICE, the immigration agency in charge of deportations, already has the final orders of removal from an immigration judge for both men, Guevara said.
The second client, a Cameroonian known as B.J. in the civil rights complaint who asked that his name be withheld for safety reasons, said he was placed in isolation after he resisted signing “deportation papers.”
“They pepper sprayed my eyes to the point that I couldn’t see,” he said in a phone interview. “I had neck pain, too. There was nothing I could do about it.”
At the Mississippi facility, he said, he almost died from being strangled by a detention staff officer. The struggle was over signing what he believed was a deportation form. During the struggle, “they were able to forcibly obtain my fingerprint on the document,” he says in the complaint.
In his interview with The News, B.J. said deportation would be “the worst thing to happen” to him. In Cameroon, said B.J., a former carpenter, “They killed my cousin because they thought it was me.”
There, “they don’t take you to court to judge you. They just kill you.”
But now, it’s Mississippi that gives him nightmares.
“When I see ICE, I am so scared. I feel like something is going to happen to me again… I thought I was running somewhere to be safe. I came here and they are still doing the same thing to me.”
Hope for a resolution
Although they’re due for deportation, Guevara fought for both of his clients to get redos on their credible fear interviews — the crucial first step of an asylum claim. Guevara submitted new testimonies for their claims. Among the evidence is the 42-page State Department report released this year.
“This is our own State Department’s report on what is happening over there,” Guevara said. “What is happening in Cameroon is so severe, so grave, and so heinous.”
Wednesday, Guevara received notice of a reversal: C.A. was given a positive credible fear finding.
Guevara, who has visited both men, at Prairieland, said his office has also been encouraged by the fact that an investigator from DHS has reached out to discuss the civil rights complaint, although they have not connected yet.
B.J. also said he was visited by a woman who said she was from the DHS investigating his portion of the civil rights complaint.
Advocates from Dallas and Fort Worth have tried to shine a light on the conditions for the Cameroonians and all Black detainees. Twice, they’ve protested at Prairieland, which sits on a rural road across from a mobile home park. Last week, they took bullhorns to shout, “Fist up, fight back.” A car caravan honked their horns.
On Oct. 13, dozens of Cameroonians were loaded in chains onto a bus for a deportation flight out of Fort Worth Alliance Airport. C.A. said he watched, growing depressed as they left the detention facility.
He was fearful of what awaited them when they returned to Cameroon, where crushing violence is common and the government is controlled by French-speaking groups who dominate the English-speaking minority.
“I was heart-broken for them. I can’t even sleep,” C.A. said. He called the other detainees “his brothers” and said “we are all in this together.”
Meantime, C.A. said he tries to soothe himself by singing songs. His favorite is, “You Raise Me Up,” popularized by Josh Groban, because it is “so American.”
In a phone call with The News, he begins singing softly in a perfect pitch, “When I am down and oh, my soul so weary…”
Protests grow over pending deportations to Cameroon, amid abuse allegations