A Cameroonian asylum seeker was sitting in a cell in the Adams County Correctional Center one Sunday afternoon in late September 2020 when he was approached by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent.
The agent asked the man to sign a document.
“I didn’t even know what was on the paper,” the man, identified in legal documents as C.A., told Mississippi Today in a telephone interview.
The ICE agent told C.A. that it was a deportation document.
“(The ICE agent) said he’s doing his job, and he is supposed to make sure I sign because my plane has been scheduled,” C.A. said. “I told him, with all due respect, ‘I have attorneys working my case. I can’t go ahead signing any paper without the counsel of my attorney.’”
When C.A. refused to sign the document, violence ensued, he said.
Later that night, C.A., who has been in ICE detention in Natchez since March 2020, said he was handcuffed, isolated and beaten by ICE agents and detention center officials.
“They were on my fingers, struggling to open my fingers because they were forcing my fingerprints. So I was crying and begging that I want to talk to my attorney first,” C.A. said. “Before I knew it, my fingers were broken in one of my hands.”
C.A.’s experience is one of eight Cameroonian immigrants’ experiences cited in a federal complaint filed this fall by several civil rights groups. The complaint alleges ICE officers and others at the Adams County Correctional Facility used torture against “Cameroonian individuals in their custody in attempts to coerce them to sign immigration documents through pressure, threats and — in several cases — excessive use of force,” the complaint said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, Freedom for Immigrants, the Natchez Network and other immigrant rights organizations submitted the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties complaint on Oct. 7 to ICE, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the DHS Office of Inspector General.
The Adams County Correctional Center, a private detention center run by Nashville-based CoreCivic, partners with ICE to detain immigrants. With a capacity of about 2,300, nearly 800 immigrants are currently detained in the medium-security facility.
Each of the eight immigrants, including C.A., said they experienced different forms of excessive force by ICE agents and CoreCivic officers, the complaint said. When the detained Cameroonian immigrants refused to sign travel documents without first speaking to their attorneys out of fear of deportation, the retaliation began, the complaint said.
In C.A.’s case, after his struggle with the ICE agent, he said he was taken to the medical unit after the incident, and three days later, he was put in isolation for two weeks.
When asked for comment by Mississippi Today, ICE did not offer any specifics about the allegations in the complaint.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not comment on specific matters presented to the Office of the Inspector General, which provides independent oversight and accountability within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” Sarah Loicano, an ICE public affairs officer, told Mississippi Today in an email.
The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General did not confirm or deny an ongoing investigation into the Adams County Correctional Center or the New Orleans ICE Field Office as a matter of policy, Tanya Aldridge, a spokesperson, told Mississippi Today in an email.
CoreCivic, which owns and operates the detention center in Natchez and another facility in Tutwiler, denied the allegations outlined in the complaint.
“The allegations contained in SPLC’s October 7 letter are completely false,” Ryan Gustin, CoreCivic manager of public affairs, told Mississippi Today in an email. “CoreCivic does not enforce immigration laws or policies or have any say whatsoever in an individual’s deportation or release. Those decisions are solely made by our government partners.”
Cameroon, a country in central Africa, is embroiled in violence due to the nation’s language divide. Cameroonians have been in conflict, known as the Anglophone Crisis or the Cameroonian Civil War, since late 2016 along the lines of language between the French-speaking majority and the English-speaking minority.
More than 3,000 people have died and more than half a million people have been forced to flee their homes during the violent conflict, which intensified greatly in late 2019.
C.A., an English-speaker, said he fled Cameroon and came to the United States to save his life.
“When I got into this country, I knew I could be protected because I know, from what I’ve learned, that this country is one of the best countries in the world,” C.A. said. “Humanity is highly progressive in this country. So I was shocked at not receiving it. They just sent me to the jail and begin torture by ICE. They’re making me seem much more like I am a criminal.”
Another Cameroonian asylum seeker, previously detained at the Adams County Correctional Facility and currently out on bond, told Mississippi Today he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Arizona after a yearlong journey.
His journey to Natchez spanned several months and thousands of miles. He left Cameroon on foot and traveled to Nigeria, where he got on a plane and flew to Ecuador. With the help of locals, he traveled by foot from Ecuador through Colombia and into Panama, where he said he was held in a detention center for one month.
Once he was released in Panama, he continued his travels north by catching a bus through Costa Rica and traveled by foot through Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. He crossed the border into Mexico, where he said he was detained for about four months and released after the intervention of a nonprofit lawyer.
He then traveled through Mexico for the next several weeks. He said when he originally tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, it was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, so he waited in Reynosa, Mexico, a city just across the border from McAllen, Texas, spending time washing cars on the side of the road for money as a means of survival.
“Some people passed by and kind of like hurt us, the migrants,” he said. “Life was really kind of like extremely difficult for me.”
He said he was soon forced to leave Reynosa and traveled to Mexicali, Mexico, a border city between California and Mexico. He said he paid a Mexican citizen, who showed him where to cross the border into Arizona. He arrived in the United States this summer, he said.
When he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, he said he turned himself in to border patrol agents and was quarantined for one week in La Palma Correctional Center just south of Phoenix, Ariz. He was soon transported to the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, and after about five months in ICE custody, he was released on bond from the ICE detention facility this fall.
“I fled Cameroon because of a genocide that is going on,” the man told Mississippi Today. “I fled Cameroon because of my political opinion, so I had to flee to come to the United States to seek protection.”
He told Mississippi Today that although he never experienced any violence or harm from ICE agents in the Adams County Correctional Center, he had heard about the other Cameroonian immigrants who were allegedly tortured.
“When they told me that their hands were hurt and tied to put signatures or to do fingerprints, I learned that most of them were put in chains and they were held with force to enter signatures on these documents,” the man said. “Being in detention behind four walls and behind barriers, it really wasn’t easy.”
E.O., another man listed in the federal complaint, has been in the U.S. since November 2019 and has been in Adams County Correctional Center since January 2020. He also talked in grim terms about his future if he were to be deported.
“I’m trying to stay positive because I don’t want to go back to my country,” E.O. said. “I don’t want to die.”
On Sept. 27 and Sept. 28, ICE agents handcuffed the men and took them to a dorm in the Adams County Correction Center known as “Zulu,” according to the federal complaint. This dorm “is known amongst the men as a place where those who are punished are taken,” the complaint said, and ICE agents and CoreCivic officers “took turns beating up the men and forcing them to sign travel documents.”
One of the detained Cameroonian immigrants, identified in the complaint as D.F, said when an ICE agent approached him on Sept. 27 asking him to sign a deportation document, he refused, reportedly saying, “I am afraid to go back to my country.”
“He promised he would torture me,” D.F. said in the complaint.
When an ICE agent returned to D.F. the next day, he still refused to sign the documents out of fear of deportation, the complaint said.
“He pressed my neck into the floor. I said, ‘Please, I can’t breathe,’” D.F. said in the complaint. “They continued to torture me in Zulu. They put me on my knees where they were torturing me and they said they were going to kill me… While in Zulu, they did get my fingerprint on my deportation document and took my picture.”
D.F. and four of the eight men in the complaint have since been deported, according to the SPLC. Three of the men in the complaint — C.A., E.O., and B.J. — remain in ICE custody at the Adams County Correctional Center.
There have also been reports of violence against detainees at other facilities within the New Orleans ICE Field Office, which oversees facilities and operations in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.
On Aug. 10, 2020, detained Cameroonian immigrants at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana “staged a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention, racist treatment from prison staff, and inhumane conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to an SPLC press release. “In response, prison officials used unnecessary lethal force to place them in choke holds, pointed a gun at them and told the men they were going to be placed in solitary confinement.”
SPLC and other immigrant rights organizations submitted another Civil Rights and Civil Liberties complaint on Nov. 5, 2020 — a month after the complaint about Adams County Correctional Center was submitted — about the alleged use of force by ICE agents against detained Cameroonian immigrants in the Jackson Parish Correctional Facility in Louisiana.
“The New Orleans Field Office, which is responsible for Adams (County Correctional Center), is well aware of these allegations of torture and use of force in signing of deportation documents, and they have been for quite some time,” said Sofia Casini, director of visitation advocacy strategies at Freedom for Immigrants organization.
Casini, who was one of the main authors of the federal complaints, said ICE also has a pattern of deporting witnesses in investigations.
“What’s really important here is ICE’s pattern and practice of disappearing key witnesses to investigations,” Casini said. “There were eight people on that complaint (against the Adams County Correctional Center). The other five are key witnesses to corroborate the stories of these three men, and they themselves suffered this same violence and intimidation. Why were they deported? You know, ICE is disappearing key witnesses.”
B.J., one of the immigrants included in the complaint against the Adams County Correctional Center, told Mississippi Today that once he fled Cameroon, he never thought he would experience detention and torture in the United States.
“It was like hell to me,” B.J. said. “I don’t know why they’re doing that to us.”