Last month, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency quietly deported dozens of African immigrants who were trying to seek asylum in the United States.
Sixty-three men who were unable to secure visas to stay in the country legally on humanitarian relief claims, according to a source within ICE who spoke to ThinkProgress on condition of anonymity. Activists who spoke with deported individuals said they were sent back to Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal.
Immigration activists believe that number may be closer to 90. They also say many of these men shouldn’t have been targeted by ICE in the first place because they had already passed their credible fear interviews — a preliminary step in the asylum process to determine whether immigrants would be placed in grave danger if they’re returned to their home countries.
Some lawyers say that black immigrants have the odds stacked against them in the immigration court system. ICE generally requires immigrants to have a sponsor who’s a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. The agency also has stringent requirements for identity documents, which is problematic for immigrants from countries like Somalia where the government didn’t always have the ability to issue those documents, according to Jessica Shulruff Schneider, a supervising attorney at the Americans for Immigrant Justice.
“Many of the individuals that are Africans don’t have close family members or friends to assist them from the outside,” said Shulruff Schneider. “It makes it virtually impossible to fight your case.”
One man deported back to Ghana, who asked for his name not to be published, did have that kind of support. He had a sponsor in the United States ready to take him in. Nonetheless, an immigration judge threw out his asylum claims and deported him from the Krome Detention Center in Miami, Florida.
He’s just one of many African immigrants who began appearing at the Krome Detention Center in the weeks leading up to their deportation around mid-June. Activists like Ellen DeYoung, a volunteer with the immigrant detention center visitation group Friends of Orange County Detainees, quickly noticed this troubling trend.
DeYoung had been visiting an immigrant detainee from Ghana who wants to be identified only as N.M. since last summer as part of a visitation program to prevent detainees from feeling isolated near her home in Orange County, California. But in early June, she says N.M. was transferred away from that detention center to Krome.
“When he called me from Krome, he said that Africans were coming in from all over the country — everywhere,” DeYoung recalled. “He continued to call saying, ‘please help us, please help us, they’re going to deport us on Tuesday.’”
According to DeYoung, the conditions that N.M. was subjected to at Krome were “nightmarish, like something out of a movie.”
“He said two people were given injections and put into wheelchairs. He saw somebody rolled up and tied into a canvas and put into the plane. Some of them were pepper sprayed and I didn’t get a clear answer on that on how and why they were sprayed,” DeYoung said.
ThinkProgress was unable to verify DeYoung’s disturbing account of abuse, but it tracks with some of the allegations of physical abuse documented in numerous lawsuits brought against the Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency that oversees immigration enforcement.
The national spotlight typically isn’t focused on black immigrants from African and Caribbean countries. In the conversation about deportation, it’s often exclusively portrayed as a Latino issue.
But deportation is part of the reality of the black immigrant experience. According to forthcoming report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and New York University Law School’s Immigrants Rights Clinic, black immigrants make up 7 percent of the total immigrant population (roughly 3.4 million people) and 10.6 percent of all immigrants in removal proceedings between 2003 and 2015. In the 2014 fiscal year, the ICE agency deported 1,203 African immigrants.
Black immigrants from Africa and the Carribean, are largely ‘invisible-lized’ in the public’s consciousness.
“One of the challenges that we at BAJI face in our work is that black immigrants from Africa and the Carribean, are largely ‘invisible-lized’ in the public’s consciousness, so the face of the immigrant is often a Latino face,” Carl Lipscombe, policy and legal manager at Black Alliance for Just Immigration, told ThinkProgress. “Largely these immigrants are in deportation proceedings as a result of a criminal conviction, or some sort of criminal contact. And that can be anything from possession of a small amount of marijuana to petty larceny, some sort of theft of something of little value. Any of those types of offenses can result in someone being detained or deported.”
Since 1996, many immigrants with minor criminal convictions have been caught up in civil deportation proceedings thanks in large part to a pair of legislation known as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) and Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). These federal laws made it mandatory for immigrants to be deported after they serve out prison sentences if they had been charged with aggravated felonies, as well as expanded the list of crimes that qualify as aggravated felonies.
Racial factors contribute to black immigrants coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.
“[Black immigrants] tend to live in urban areas,” Lipscombe said. “They tend to live in lower-income areas and they tend to live in neighborhoods that are heavily policed for whatever reason. As a result of policy, like ‘Broken Windows’ or ‘Stop and Frisk,’ many black migrants — like black Americans — get arrested and end up with a contact with the criminal justice system at some point in their lives, many at a young age.”
Though the deportation of black immigrants likely won’t stop, advocates are hoping that people will begin talking about them as a group in the same way that they are folded into other movements.
“When we talk about Black Lives Matter, that includes black immigrants and black people worldwide,” Lipscombe said.