Dozens of Cameroonian asylum-seekers have been deported via “death flights” back to Cameroon, as the Trump administration rushes to clear African migrants out of the country during its final weeks in office. I hope we get a fair shot to explain why my Cameroonian client David is so clearly deserving of asylum—but I am no longer going to take it for granted that ICE will comply with the law.
On Nov. 9, I read the Guardian article “U.S. to send asylum seekers home to Cameroon despite ‘death plane warnings’” with mixed dismay and relief.
Dozens of Cameroonian asylum-seekers have been deported via “death flights” back to Cameroon, as the Trump administration rushes to clear African migrants out of the country during its final weeks in office. The nickname isn’t hyperbole—reports indicate that deportees repatriated last month are now missing.
One of my pro bono clients, David*, is a Cameroonian asylum seeker detained in south Georgia. Although it was painful to read about people who face torture upon repatriation, I was secure in the knowledge that my client couldn’t be deported nor forced onto one of these death flights.
I filed a notice of intent to appeal his asylum case with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) months ago and have since been waiting for the BIA to send the transcript from David’s hearing. From there, David and I can explain why he deserves asylum and why the immigration judge made a mistake in denying his case.
David would be fine, I told myself, so I closed the article and got back to work.
That night, I received an email from Katie Shepherd, national advocacy counsel for the Immigration Justice Campaign, with a warning: David’s name was among those slated to board the deportation flight the next day.
“Do you have any reason to believe that he may be deported tomorrow?” Katie asked.
I held my breath for a few seconds, exhaled slowly and began frantically contacting mentors for help. I work primarily in business immigration, helping companies obtain work visas for their employees. Business immigration is calmer than asylum—less adversarial. And it rarely involves contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
I was in unknown territory when it came to preventing my client from being deported.
My friends at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) came through immediately with ideas and contact information for ICE officers. Project coordinator Monica Whatley made a plan to run to the airport first thing in the morning to head off any attempt to put David on a plane.
After a sleepless night worrying about the flight to Cameroon, I was finally able to speak with an ICE officer who confirmed that David was not going to be deported—but he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) explain why David’s name was on a list to be deported that day.
I still wasn’t going to believe David was (relatively) safe in the detention center until I heard him confirm it, so I scheduled a call with him. Upon dialing into the detention center, an officer asked who I was calling for.
When I gave her the name, she said: “David? He’s an angry one.”
The officer said David had gotten into an altercation with an officer in the kitchen. I made a mental note to ask him about it when we spoke.
It turns out, David had also heard through the detention center grapevine that he had been singled out to be deported on Nov. 10. The uncertainty had been torturous for him.
If David had been swept away on a flight to Cameroon, he would be a gay man forced back to a country where it is illegal to perform homosexual acts. He would be going back to the place where he was beaten unconscious, arrested and where his partner was murdered for being gay.
Although relieved to hear ICE had acknowledged he was not deportable, David was frustrated while we waited for the chance to explain his case to the BIA. He had to keep his guard up at all times, from all directions. He told me that an ICE officer had twice—first sweetly, then angrily—tried to convince him to sign a travel document back to Cameroon after I took on his appeal.
David doesn’t just have to guard against being deported before he has a chance to make his case to the BIA, but he has to protect himself against everyone around him in the detention center. David has been harassed for being gay, not just by fellow detainees but from detention center employees as well.
That “altercation” with an officer in the kitchen? A detention center officer had repeatedly mocked him by calling him “Ms. David” and told him that she was going to sit on his face before he grew upset and told her off. Though relieved of his current safety from deportation, David was exhausted, sad and confused.
After our call, I thought again about David being described as “an angry one.” After spending a year in a detention center notorious for overcrowding, lack of access to medical care, verbal and physical abuse, and insufficient nutrition, I would not begrudge David an ounce of anger. He should indulge in fury at how he has been treated by this country after seeking asylum “the right way”—after waiting in line at the border to ask for asylum and explaining his case in good faith to apathetic ears.
I sincerely hope we get a fair shot at explaining to the BIA why David is so clearly deserving of asylum, but I am no longer going to take it for granted that ICE will comply with the law and leave David alone until he gets the chance to tell his story.
*Indicates use of pseudonym.