FOIA lawsuit seeks records improperly withheld by U.S. government after it mistreated Black immigrants
October 13, 2021, New York ‒ Civil rights organizations today filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit demanding information about the U.S. government’s wrongful deportation of asylum seekers to Cameroon, where a civil war has displaced some 700,000 people. This FOIA lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, builds on previous requests the U.S. government disregarded and follows civil rights complaints that have gone unanswered.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, Project South, and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit in response to concerns from activists who have been supporting Cameroonian migrants, including members of a grassroots coalition called the Alliance in Defense of Black Immigrants. It is part of an effort to hold the U.S. government accountable for its brutal treatment of Black immigrants and to protect them from further harm.
The complaint centers on deportation flights on October 13, 2020—exactly one year ago—and November 11, 2020, which the Trump administration carried out amid numerous reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials had used pepper spray and other forms of abuse to force Cameroonian asylum seekers to sign their own deportation orders.
“When they arrived, they pepper sprayed me in the eyes and...strangled me almost to the point of death…,” said an asylum seeker identified as J.B., describing his treatment at an ICE detention center in Natchez, Mississippi. “I was coughing so much after and my throat still hurts a lot. I can’t see well still from the pepper spray. As a result of the physical violence, they were able to forcibly obtain my fingerprint on the document.”
The original FOIA requests — submitted to ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review, and the State Department — sought demographic data and internal communications concerning the deportation of Cameroonian immigrants between August 1, 2020, and February 26, 2021. In that period, immigration advocacy groups filed two civil rights complaints detailing ICE’s violent and coercive tactics against Cameroonian asylum seekers. The complaints remain unresolved.
“The brutality that U.S. border patrol agents recently inflicted on Haitian refugees is a fresh reminder that anti-Black racism compounds the endemic injustices of the U.S. immigration system,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, Legal & Advocacy Director of Project South. “ICE must not be allowed to continue its attempts to hide critical information about the brutality it inflicted upon Cameroonian asylum seekers. Nothing short of full transparency and accountability is warranted.”
The civil war in Cameroon is a legacy of actions by colonial powers after World War I, when France and Great Britain divided up the country. Now in its fifth year, the fighting between Anglophone rebels seeking independence and the Francophone government has inflicted widespread suffering on civilians. The people on the deportation flights last fall were from the English-speaking minority. Many had testified in immigration court proceedings that security forces in Cameroon had imprisoned them, tortured them, and killed their family members.
Last fall, rejecting pleas from human rights groups, immigrant rights advocates, and members of Congress, the Trump administration removed asylum seekers who had pending court hearings, even after previously deported Cameroonians had gone missing upon return. After the October 13th flight landed, Cameroonian police questioned the passengers and confiscated their personal documents. According to pro-government media, at least two were imprisoned.
The dangerous conditions in Cameroon have spurred calls to provide the 40,000 Cameroonian refugees in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Today, a group of House members is introducing a bill in Congress that would do just that.
“Especially after the events of the last month, there is no doubt that Black immigrants are disproportionately subject to harm and abuse by our immigration system,” said Luz Lopez, a Senior Supervising Attorney with the SPLC. “This is why it is more important now than ever that the abuses these Black immigrants suffered, as a result of these deportations, are not simply swept under the rug. There must be transparency and the truth must come out in order to prevent future similar abuses.”
The FOIA filing comes during a national week of action, which the Black Alliance for Just Immigration organized to push for an end to Title 42 expulsions and other abuses that disproportionately harm Black immigrants. There will be vigils this evening, as well.
Cameroonians detained by ICE have often led protests and spoken out against human rights abuses. Of the sixty Cameroonian asylum seekers deported on the October 13th flight, at least six had come forward with allegations that they were tortured.
“Like many Black immigrants around the country, these Cameroonian asylum seekers protested their harsh and discriminatory confinement,” said Samah Sisay, an attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The government illegally deported them in retaliation for their brave resistance, effectively disappearing witnesses. Their treatment and deportation was a violation of their basic rights, and the information solicited in these FOIA requests is integral to remedying the harm caused.”
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
Project South is a social justice organization based in Atlanta, Georgia. Our mission is to cultivate strong social movements in the South powerful enough to contend with some of the most pressing and complicated social, economic, and political problems we face today. The Legal & Advocacy department of Project South connects movement lawyers with grassroots organizations and campaigns focusing on dismantling state repression and protecting immigrants’ rights and Muslim communities. Our work is also focused on connecting with and supporting social justice movements in the Global South. Learn more at projectsouth.org. Follow Project South on social media: @ProjectSouth on Twitter, ProjectSouthATL on Facebook, and projectsouthatl on Instagram.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people. For more information, visit: www.splcenter.org. “SPLCenter” on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.