Less than two months after U.S. border patrol agents were caught on video flogging Haitian asylum seekers with riding crops, the Biden administration is continuing its pursuit of deportation of Black asylum seekers with a seemingly banal but still devastating instrument: boilerplate form letters.
Truthout recently gained access to two of these letters via the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. On their face, they don’t seem noteworthy — they are identical, standard-issue form letters informing two asylum seekers from Mauritania that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has denied their asylum claims on the basis that they have not demonstrated a “credible fear” of returning to Mauritania if deported back there by the U.S., despite the fact that they are fleeing enslavement and brutality.
Under U.S. law, asylum seekers may not be deported to their home countries while their asylum cases are waiting to be processed if they demonstrate “credible fear” of persecution or violence.
It’s unfathomable and outrageous that DHS is denying the credible fear claims of these Mauritanian asylum seekers after everything they have endured and escaped, including enslavement, beatings, stalking, murder threats, multiple arrests and incarceration in nightmarish holding pens without beds or sanitation.
Mauritania is an African country which is 90 percent desert and whose economy can barely sustain its 4.7 million people. An estimated 500,000 Black Mauritanians are mercilessly exploited via formal and informal systems of slavery and enforced servitude by the light-skinned Berber and Bidhan (locally called “white Arab”) ruling class, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. However, absent any governmental or international action, Black Mauritanians must flee their oppression relying only on help from family and village members already abroad.
Asylum seekers I.C. and I.W. were among the daring few who have risked the harrowing journey across the Atlantic, through South and Central America, and who made it to Mexico to submit themselves to Biden’s asylum process at one of the port of entries along the U.S.-Mexico border. (To protect them from retaliation, Truthout has refrained from using the men’s full names and has obscured other potentially identifying details in this report.)
I.C.’s sworn declaration chronicles the harms he’s suffered and the traumas he’s already borne:
In Mauritania I was forced to work for white Arabs without pay. When I would demand payment for my labor, they would throw me in a jail … until I was willing to return to work without pay. This happened to me twice. The first time I was wrongfully imprisoned for about two weeks. The second time my confinement lasted for about a month.
The prison where they threw me for refusing to work without pay is disgusting and the guards are abusive … they woke us up every morning by throwing cold water on us, kicking us and yelling at us.… We are forced to defecate in a hole three men at a time while the guards stand watch over us like we are animals….
A third man, M.A., who had also endured enslavement and survived torture, has passed the hurdle of his credible fear interview, and can meet all the other conditions needed for release. Nonetheless, he is yet to be freed from Richwood Correctional Center, a for-profit prison in Louisiana. When the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative attorneys complained to DHS headquarters in D.C. that the two release requests they’d submitted on M.A.’s behalf were being wholly ignored by the New Orleans ICE Field Office, D.C. kicked it back to New Orleans. This is the same field office that oversaw the brutal mass deportations of Black Africans in the waning days of the Trump administration, and against whom Cameroonians in the Pine Prairie detention facility conducted a desperate hunger strike to protest their lengthy detentions, measured in years, not months or weeks.
“It’s a dystopian reality,” says Mich González, associate director of advocacy for the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, one of several attorneys handling their cases. “Coming off the heels of the prior administration, I was really hopeful and excited for an administration that cared about humanitarian issues, cared about restoring our asylum process that was all but destroyed,” he told Truthout. Instead, he says, that care seems to exist only in theory.
I.C. and I.W. are living in a paroxysm of anxiety. Because their credible fear claims were denied, at any moment, they could potentially be plucked out of the Richwood Correctional Center and Stewart Detention Centers in Georgia, respectively, where they have been languishing for months, and forced, shackled, onto dangerous ICE Air charter flights back to Mauritania — and back to enslavement.
Photos smuggled out of a Mauritanian prison were provided to Truthout by Lynn Tramonte, director of Ohio Immigrant Alliance, who received them from another nonprofit, which received them directly from a Black Mauritanian man deported from the U.S. in January 2021. They are confirmation of just how credible I.C. and I.W.’s fears actually are: incarceration to enforce enslavement is not a farfetched or abnormal condition in Mauritania.
Stephen J. King, professor of government at Georgetown University, estimates that of the half-a-million Black Mauritanians who are subjected to slavery or forced servitude, about 90,000 are born into enslavement in a hereditary system of chattel slavery, wherein “white Arab” and Berber families own Black families as private property. The remainder have been tricked or trapped into servitude because they are denied IDs, which are an impediment to employment. As King explains in an August 2021 white paper published by Arab Reform Initiative:
Slavery in Mauritania is also a racial slavery. In a country that has a largely destitute population, Mauritania’s Arabic-speaking Arab-Berber elite, an exclusionary and predatory group that self-identifies as White (Bidan), ruthlessly dominates the country’s state and economy. They represent, at most, 30% of the population. The enslaved are Blacks from within Mauritania’s Arab-Islamic linguistic and cultural sphere (Black Arabs or Sudan).
What this means is that if higher-ups in the Biden administration do not meaningfully intervene, I.C. and I.W. may soon be reinserted into the catastrophe that pushed them to U.S. shores in the first place. Their quest will have been in vain, other than to have added to the coffers of for-profit prison operators extracting billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers every year that immigrant detention is allowed to exist.
Maryam Sy is an organizer in the Ohio Immigrant Alliance’s ReuniteUS campaign working to bring back those with cases pending who were illegally deported under Trump. Of Senegalese heritage, she’s married to a Mauritanian man whose family was slaughtered in what they refer to as the 1989 genocide.
“I love America, it’s a great country with many opportunities,” she told Truthout. “But I feel pain about what’s still happening in Mauritania.”
Sy’s advocacy began in earnest in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, in 2020 after her husband’s nephew escaped slavery. He traveled though Brazil, through the jungle, to the southern U.S. border. A nationwide fundraiser on social media raised his $8,000 release bond in 24 hours. “When he got released,” Sy recalled, “I said I need to do more for the Mauritanian people.”
She has interviewed 253 people, 75 percent of whom are Mauritanians who were deported by the Trump and previous administrations, plus 20 who fled to Canada in fear of deportation. Sy describes an expedient relationship between DHS and officials in Mauritania, in which the quid pro quo runs along these lines: In order to deport Mauritanians back to Mauritania, DHS must get a laissez-passer document stating that those being deported are citizens, which is routinely provided by the Mauritanian consulate. But, she says, ICE officials only bring the men to the tarmac.
Inside the airport, the returning men, who themselves have no identifying documentation, are not able to prove their citizenship and are taken to the prisons (like the one pictured) where they are trapped until they can bribe or otherwise finagle their way out. Once free, they are harassed and sometimes hounded by authorities (one man was arrested 15 times) for being undocumented, and are ineligible to work. Free to starve, free to be unsheltered, the desperate circumstances imposed on them by a cunning and treacherous state force them to capitulate to servitude; and if they eventually protest their exploitation, there’s hell to pay.
In a forthcoming documentary Sy’s group is producing to advocate for temporary protected status (TPS) for Mauritanian migrants, one man sums up the tragedy he’s fallen prey to, saying he has his diplomas, he is a doctor in sociology, but he is enslaved. He goes on to say that when he asks for money, those who have enslaved him say they won’t pay and threaten to call the police, or they beat him up. “This is a form of modern slavery,” he says.
Sy further describes a cynical and antiquated judicial bureaucracy in which U.S. immigration judges rely on the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices like this one from 2019, which are widely understood to be inaccurate. Earlier this year The Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in the U.S. issued a statement decrying the false picture of human rights advances made in Mauritania presented by Washington. Rather than the free elections claimed by our diplomatic corps, they say “Mauritanians witnessed one of the most contested non-transparent elections in Mauritanian history,” which were followed by kidnappings of opposition leaders and prominent journalists who were detained without charge; some were sentenced to prison terms and most were beaten and tortured “in the most horrible ways.”
And while DHS will meet with advocates about designating TPS for Mauritanians, when the meeting concludes, immigration judges continue pretending that overly optimistic United Nations reports on Mauritania from 1996, written when the situation after the 1989 massacres and expulsions to Senegal had improved, and later in 2012, when a fraction of the Mauritanians violently driven across the border to Senegal were allowed to return, are somehow relevant to 2021.
In an email to Truthout, Tramonte condemned the UN’s assessments, saying:
There is so much wrong with the content of these, it’s impossible to do justice. But a few things jump out: Haratines are the SLAVE caste of the [White Arabs]. They are not empowered. The Black African ethnic groups (Fulani, Wolof, Soninke, Bambara, a few others) have ALL been and are still being harmed by the ongoing repression against Black ethnic groups in Mauritania and they do not have the same rights or privileges as the [White Arabs]. The idea that people who returned from Senegal all got their land and cattle back would be laughable if the issues were not so serious. People were murdered to take that land, women raped, dissidents tortured in jail. This is gaslighting of the highest order.
But U.S. officials deliberately burying their heads in the convenient sand does not change the reality on the ground. “There is slavery in Mauritania,” Sy says. “Black Mauritanians are not being recognized as citizens. They can’t get IDs because all the archives have been destroyed. They can’t register on the current census that’s happening right now. So, they are stateless.”
Tramonte says that despite all the attempts to disempower and dehumanize them, the Mauritanian migrants she works with inspire her with their compassion, smarts and humanity every single day.
“They have been on the run for 30 years,” Tramonte told Truthout. “They have the strength to get here … they came to our doorstep [men like M.A.] and said ‘Will you help me?’ and we said, ‘Sure, here’s a jail cell.’ And still they organize and know what their rights are, and find a way to use their voices.”
She fondly remembers the Mauritanian men detained in Ohio from 2017-2019 who banded together and created a nucleus where they would all look out for each other.
“If someone’s commissary funds got frozen, oh no, is he going to be deported or moved? Who’s got money on their books? So the person calls us, we call their attorney, their attorney files last-minute stays, sometimes they pull people off the plane. They knew the law, they were looking at the time frames for appeals. There were three men who wanted habeas corpus petitions filed. We raised some money, found some lawyers, and their strategy worked: they got out.”
But if there is strength in numbers, there is also vulnerability in isolation. Tramonte is currently working on a case of a sole Black Mauritanian man incarcerated in a remote rural county in Michigan.
“DHS will put Black Muslim men in a county jail where the county is 99 percent white, no immigration lawyers live there, and there’s active white supremacist groups,” she explained. “It’s all about breaking their spirits. It can’t be overstated how inhumane it is.”
Zeinabou Sall, an advocate working with Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in the US for the past two years, says it’s hard not to see DHS’s practices as blatant anti-Blackness. “We’ve had a lot of problems in Louisiana,” Sall told Truthout. “When they call me — whether they’re from Cameroon, Kenya, Haiti or Mauritania — they all tell me the same things: We, Blacks are being mistreated.”
One case was especially upsetting. “ICE dragged this boy, used force to take him out of his cell, to the airport; but he was lucky because the airline would not take him without his COVID test,” Sall said.
In another, DHS released a Black Mauritanian man from detention in Louisiana, but ICE agents drove him deep into Mississippi where officials dropped him off at a Greyhound bus station “without any documents, where no one speaks the language.” He contacted Sall, and she made arrangements through an aid group in Louisiana to get him to safety.
Born and raised in Mauritania, Sall’s family fled “because of the discrimination and killing,” and were refugees in Senegal for 10 years before they were brought by the United Nations to Texas in 2001. Among many other duties, she helps the lawyers with translation — she can speak French, English, Fula, Wolof, a few dialects of Fulani, and some Arabic. She’s heard many stories and is certain of one commonality: “Black Mauritanians are leaving for fear of our lives, and it’s an ongoing situation for over 30 years. They need help to get access to language services to get access to freedom. I’m here for them. I’m their voice; they cannot talk for themselves.”
On that point, I.C. is scheduled to have a second chance today (November 17) at his credible fear interview because it came to light that the first one had been seriously botched by a translator who did not speak the same dialect and omitted or fudged crucial details. González had to fight hard even for this concession.
“And there is no guarantee he will get a different result,” he said.
As for M.A., a torture victim for whom every day spent imprisoned is a day he cannot heal from the trauma he carries, his advocates want him released from Richwood and reunited with his cousin before Thanksgiving.
“When you think about the cases of the Mauritanians, it’s horrifying,” says González. “They’re fleeing conditions of slavery which include being incarcerated if they don’t agree to indentured servitude. Then we incarcerate them the moment they seek help. It’s really disgusting.”