In 2018, a crisis year in Cameroon marked by violent oppression inflicted by forces of the Francophone majority upon the English-speaking minority, Divine Tikum Kem, a shopkeeper in the country’s English-speaking northwest region, was beaten unconscious by members of the military. Kem says his shop had been targeted as a site of resistance in the continuing struggle for increased autonomy in the Anglophone region following the questionably democratic election of President Paul Biya to a seventh term, a vote the BBC reports was characterized by “low turnout and voter intimidation.”
After two weeks in the hospital, word reached Kem that the military was hunting him down. He barely escaped being snatched from his hospital bed and arrested. Days later, his business was ravaged by the military, the stock looted, shelving and equipment destroyed. In fear for his life, still in pain from nerve damage to his arm and other bodily trauma sustained during the assault, he fled the country with the aim of seeking asylum in the U.S. Because of the severity of his injuries and the verifiably credible threats against him, he thought that the U.S. would protect him.
“I never believed what would happen to me in Louisiana could happen,” Kem told Truthout from an undisclosed location on the African continent. “It was like slavery had not ended.”
After 15 months spent in two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers in Louisiana — Pine Prairie and Allen Parish — Kem was an involuntary passenger in the November 2020 mass deportation of Black asylum seekers. He is now one of four African complainants whose experiences in ICE detention are recounted in a formal complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, ICE, and other officials by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC’s) Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative on July 28. The complaint seeks to make plain that swift action must be taken to shut down these prisons, safely release those detained by ICE and end ICE detention.
“Welcome to Hell”
Kem recalls his arrival to detention in Pine Prairie as a terrible day.
“We were greeted by the brothers being held there who told us that we are caught in hell — no Africans were being released into asylum.”
It was a stark and frightening moment that would only lead to worse ones.
The complaint documents the dehumanizing practices of a for-profit system that both extracts as much revenue as possible from a captive population, while also squeezing margins from their provisions in Dickensian proportions. Black migrants were routinely deprived of clean drinking water, leaving those without sufficient funds to buy bottled water from the commissary no choice but to drink the same murky brown tap water that had discolored their clothes in the laundry. During a hunger strike in March 2020, the African strikers were forced to drink water from the toilet; it was the only way to maintain their commitment to protest their own indefinite detention, measured not in weeks or months, but years — durations that align with the findings of a recent Tulane Law School study that analyzed 499 Louisiana habeas cases filed in federal court from 2010 to 2020.
The SPLC complaint chronicles the daily privations and humiliations of the ICE detention system. Food was at times rotten, bread moldy and milk expired. Medical treatments were denied or delayed, exacerbating already serious ailments like liver disease and hypertension. Patients in ICE’s medical care were at times shackled and slapped by medical personnel. One woman with underlying medical conditions, too frightened to be named in the complaint, overheard one guard tell another to “drag the bitch [to medical isolation]” if she refused to sign a waiver releasing ICE from liability if she died of COVID.
But it also exposes Abu Ghraib-style brutality against Black migrants, routinely perpetrated with impunity, and not exclusively by guards. One Black migrant was thrown in a dorm with 12 white men who beat him mercilessly. The victim was then confined to solitary for four days (while the men who’d attacked him remained in the general population). When Black migrants tried to protect each other, as they did in response to a man in the throes of a mental health crisis being pinned down by a guard’s knee to his testicles, they were threatened with worse treatment. Migrants say they were taken to hallways with no cameras and threatened with beatings and lockdowns — threats that were sometimes carried out.
After a confrontation with an officer about a t-shirt on which he had written “Black Lives Matter,” Kem wondered if he would make it out of the Allen Parish center alive. It was confiscated by a person known as “Warden Chavez” (whose official role and affiliation are unknown and unverifiable), who warned him not to make trouble because “you know I have guns, and I can easily use them.” At the time, Kem told his attorney (and the lead attorney on the complaint), Rose Murray, “…we are not safe here. I don’t really think that we are safe here … is this where they kill people?”
The complaint argues that the conditions and culture exhibited in Pine Prairie and Allen Parish are beyond the reach of reform, and urges the Department of Homeland Security to permanently shutter the centers for violation of state and federal law, international law, ICE’s own policies, and on the basis of simple business terms agreed to in the contracts between ICE and its contractors — the GEO Group and the Allen Parish Sheriff’s Office. The complaint faults the government for a lack of investigations and audits, instead leaving necessary scrutiny to advocates, journalists and survivors like Kem.
“I lost my fight,” Kem said, referring to his deportation. “Today, whatever we are fighting for is for other people not to be terrorized by what we went through — that no other Black migrant should go through this again in this century. I believe my cry can be heard; I pray my voice will not cease.”
The Invisible Hand of the Profit Motive
After three years representing African migrants in ICE detention through SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, Rose Murray has come to a bitter conclusion: The detention system isn’t “broken”; it’s working exactly as intended.
“You can’t fix what’s not broken,” Murray says. “ICE detention is a very well-oiled machine that’s been functioning to benefit the interests that we named in the complaint.”
The official line is that immigration detention is supposed to ensure people attend their hearings and “prevent danger to the community,” Murray says, but that’s not what’s happening at all.
With respect to attendance at hearings, a U.S. General Accounting Office study reviewed compliance with alternatives to detention from fiscal years 2011 through 2013. The study showed that over 99 percent of people with a scheduled court hearing appeared, with the appearance rate dropping slightly to over 95 percent for their final removal hearing.
By contrast, Murray says in her experience, migrants in detention regularly miss court hearings “because of the flaws of detention and the lack of care, and the failures of officials and staff themselves.” Furthermore, almost all of her clients have family who would support them in their hearing appearances. “The only reason that Divine and my other clients were not released from detention is this sick economic interest in keeping them incarcerated.”
Meanwhile, Murray points to the fact that immigration administration in many other countries does not involve incarcerating people in detention centers. She says that it wasn’t carceral in the United States, either, until the Reagan administration, which saw a backlash against welfare and other human services, a rise in mass incarceration and intense lobbying by private prison corporations.
The SPLC complaint connects the economics of oppression in Louisiana from historic slavery to the current moment. Money is the lifeblood of the immigrant detention machine, but “anti-Blackness, white supremacy culture and racism are its beating heart,” says Murray.
Despite multiple attempts by the Congressional Black Caucus to thwart the removal of planes full of Black migrants in the waning days of the Trump administration, many whose cases were still open, the planes took off returning some of them to certain death. “That they were not allowed to finish out their legal processes, the animus of ICE in this region to just hurry and deport as many as possible, shows the depth of that.”
“Did we fight it as much as we could to the last minute and beyond? Yes, we did. Am I surprised that it happened, or that they did pull off these deportations? Sadly, no,” Murray says.
A Diversity of Tactics Is Being Deployed Nationwide to End Immigration Detention
Erika Guadalupe Núñez is the executive director of Juntos, an advocacy organization in Philadelphia that is part of the coalition that successfully pressured officials in York County to sever their contract with ICE and close the largest immigration detention center in Pennsylvania. She’s skeptical that the Biden administration will make big moves to immigration imprisonment and deportation, noting its lack of pushback when Judge Drew Tipton blocked Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations, effectively ending it. Other steps — like the recent statewide victories in Illinois, New York and California, driven by grassroots pressure — will forge the path to end immigration detention.
“Community organizing, and the work of directly impacted people — that will be how we end it,” Núñez told Truthout.
She thinks ICE is leaving York County Prison on August 12 because the public scrutiny and hassle from community pressure weighed against the profit margin just wasn’t worth it to the county. But, she warns, “Detention isn’t shrinking, it’s just moving. As York [County Prison] shuts down [immigration detention], other places are being prepared. It’s taking another shape.”
ICE paid York $108 per bed; it pays Pine Prairie almost $65. But more money for immigration detention is clearly not the answer to brutal conditions, advocates say. Many of the same dehumanizing practices detailed in the SPLC complaint were also the modus operandi at York County Prison according to a Juntos report, despite ICE paying $43 more per bed at York.
Other advocates are working to stem the prison-to-detention pipeline that fills ICE jails. A report from Centro Legal de la Raza and the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice found that “[n]early 80% of immigration arrests identified occurred at California prisons or county jails.” Angela Chan, policy director at the Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, says passing the VISION Act would ensure that once a person has earned their release from state prison or local jail, they are not transferred to ICE detention. The bill, which has passed the Assembly and is awaiting action in the California State Senate, would prohibit ICE from arresting immigrants while they’re incarcerated within California’s criminal legal system (in prisons or jails) and effectively “sever the main pipeline that fills immigration detention beds and subjects immigrants [in the state] to immense suffering in inhumane detention conditions.”
“We have represented a number of community members who have ended up at Pine Prairie,” Chan told Truthout. “This includes Kao Saelee, a formerly incarcerated firefighter and Southeast Asian refugee, who was transferred to ICE last summer and held at Pine Prairie for about 10 months before he was released due to pressure from community and state legislative officials.”
U.S. Imperialism Fuels the Problem for African Asylum Seekers
Ajamu Baraka, executive director of the Black Alliance for Peace, praises Murray’s complaint for calling out the violations of international human rights conventions, ratified by the U.S. He says it’s time for policy makers to consider the origins of the problem and make appropriate correctives.
“If the U.S. was not involved in providing support to some of the most brutal regimes you can imagine on the African continent, we would not see the Africans involved in the political opposition having to flee in the first place,” Baraka told Truthout. “We’ve got to recognize the kinds of activity the U.S. is involved in on the African continent, and its complicity in creating situations where there’s destabilization and brutal repression. While we have to look at the plight of Africans in these detention centers in Louisiana, we also have to make the connection to U.S. foreign policy. It is the imperialist policy of the U.S. that does not require that [its] allies adhere to international human rights conventions, that are creating the conditions so that people have to flee.”
The other point the complaint makes that is so egregious for all of us who believe that Black lives matter, Baraka says, is that “these Black bodies in these detention centers reflect a kind of rent, a new form of slavery. The specifics of the brutality reflected in the complaint are the result of the ingrained white supremacist attitudes…. They believe they can act with impunity.”
Multiple requests for commentary on the complaint were sent to U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, the newly elected Congressman from Louisiana’s 2nd District who replaced Cedric Richmond after he stepped down to join the White House Office of Public Engagement under President Biden; U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, who reintroduced the New Way Forward Act in the current session (which would curtail, not end, immigrant detention); and to Kyle Anderson, executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. None had responded to Truthout’s request by the time of publication.
“It seems clear that ICE will not do the right thing,” Murray says. “So we need anyone who can with power to do the right thing and help shut this down.”