The San Diego Union-Tribune | A few asylum seekers were pulled from the flight at the last minute due to legal filings on their behalf
Despite a public outcry and and letters from members of Congress calling for it to be stopped, a deportation flight took off on Tuesday afternoon, carrying asylum seekers from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo back to the countries from which they had fled.
Detainees, through their attorneys and other advocates, had raised concerns that they were going to be deported and that they believed they would be killed by their governments after they arrived. Members of Congress, including Rep. Bennie Thompson and Rep. Karen Bass, sent letters to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, asking the agency to stop the deportations. They cited a complaint made by eight men to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties that said they had been forcibly coerced into signing paperwork related to their deportation.
“We urge you to halt the removal of Cameroonians until a fair, thorough, and transparent investigation into the allegations outlined in this very troubling complaint is complete,” Thompson and Bass wrote.
Protesters demonstrated outside the detention center in Texas where the asylum seekers were being held and filmed the buses that took the detainees to the airport.
But that didn’t stop the flight.
The plane left at close to 5 p.m. central time on Tuesday, according to Tom Cartwright, a volunteer with Witness at the Border, an organization that tracks Immigration and Customs Enforcement flights. It stopped in Senegal and then Cameroon before going on to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, he said.
Not all of the more than 200 Cameroonians and Congolese that detainees said were transferred to a detention facility in Texas to be deported were on the flight. Some of the group remained at Prairieland Detention Center, according to Rebekah Entralgo of Freedom For Immigrants, and a few were pulled from the flight due to individual legal actions taken on their behalf.
It remains unclear exactly how many people were deported on the flight. News articles in Cameroon reported varying numbers of deportees — 57 and 81.
ICE told the Union-Tribune on Monday that the agency could not give information about operations, including deportations, that are not yet completed. ICE did not respond to a second request for comment about the deportation flight after it landed.
According to advocates, among those taken off of the flight were two men who were part of the eight who filed the complaint. One of them said his fingers had been broken, and the other said he’d been pepper-sprayed in the eyes. Another man who was part of the eight is also still in ICE custody, advocates said, but the other five are believed to have been deported.
A woman was taken off of the flight because she was identified as a class member in an ongoing lawsuit challenging the practice of limiting how many asylum seekers are processed at ports of entry on a given day, known as metering, as well as its intersection with a Trump administration change to asylum rules known as the third country transit ban. Asylum seekers who were metered before a certain date are not supposed to have the ban applied in their cases, according to the current ruling in the case.
The woman had not passed her screening interview because of the ban, according to court documents, but because of the court ruling she should be given another opportunity to make her case.
Attorneys are concerned that more asylum seekers who were affected by these policies may have been deported on the flight.
Another man was taken off of the flight because a group of Canadian activists convinced officials there to interview him for potential asylum in their country, according to reports from Canadian news outlets.
The client of local attorney Ruth Hargrove was also removed from the flight. She had filed a motion to stay his deportation while the Board of Immigration Appeals decides whether to reopen his case.
After the flight left, Hargrove said, her client’s deportation officer told her that it had been a mistake to take her client off of the flight and that he would soon be deported. ICE didn’t respond to a request for comment on her client’s situation.
According to Hargrove, her client, like many on the flight whose stories are known by attorneys and advocates, was a victim of torture at the hands of his government. She’s still fighting to find a way to protect him, either in the United States or Canada.
“I can’t ever say to him, ‘I’m giving up.’ I say to him that my mantra is what he said to me,” Hargrove said, recounting her client’s daring escape from prison in Cameroon. “What he told me was, ‘I preferred to die getting shot in the back as I ran for my freedom than being forced to kneel and being shot in the back of the head. I prefer to die standing up.’ I said to him, ‘I will keep giving you a voice until I am dead.’”
Advocates are still working to determine what had happened to deportees after they touched down. In Cameroon, they were tested for COVID-19, and those who tested positive were taken to a building near the airport and quarantined for 14 days, according to multiple accounts.
Pat Leach, a volunteer with Freedom For Immigrants who, since January, has become the pen pal of 45 people in immigration custody, said that six people she’d been communicating with were on the flight.
Leach coordinated with Cartwright to communicate with family members to have people ready to try to secure the release of the deportees once they landed.
The Congolese asylum seekers she knew managed to get released, despite a protest rally happening that day near the airport, she said.
Through bribes, family members were able to get a Cameroonian man released from government custody more than 12 hours after the plane landed, Leach said.
“What would have happened to them is they would go from the airport to jail, and jail is where everybody disappears or dies,” Leach said.
She’s still worried the military will go after her friends.