Deportations out of Louisiana part of racist immigration policies, advocates say

By: - February 23, 2023 10:02 am
A Lockheed C-130 military transport aircraft taxis at the Alexandria International Airport.

A Lockheed C-130 military transport aircraft taxis at the Alexandria International Airport. (Photo by Remi Tallo)

ALEXANDRIA – After a brief lull, deportation flights have resumed to Haiti from the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) staging facility at Alexandria International Airport, a nexus for detention centers in the federal agency’s New Orleans region. In the past six months, more than 120 ICE Air Operations flights have departed from Central Louisiana. Four of them have gone to Haiti.

Concerns have risen that complaints of abuse and deprivation of due process on behalf of Black asylum seekers have never been adequately redressed. Immigrant advocates describe the “death flights” of Oct. 13 and Nov. 11, 2020, as forceful and unlawful deportations to the Republic of Cameroon, where they say the fleeing residents face near-certain death in sectarian violence. 

An October 2021 complaint by a Cameroonian claiming torture in the Winn Detention Center in Winn Parish, and another in November 2022 regarding restricted attorney-client contact at LaSalle Detention Center in Jena have further worried immigrant rights watchdogs. 

Documents immigration attorneys have obtained from multiple government agencies through a public records request reveal what they say is an anti-Black culture among management-level employees in the federal immigration bureaucracy. 

Haitian deportations increase

More Haitians have been removed under President Joe Biden than under the past three administrations combined, according to the Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees website. A report earlier this month from Witness at the Border, an immigration and human rights watchdog group, said since Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, there have been 279 ICE flights removing 26,777 Haitians.

Some 14,000 Haitians seeking asylum in the U.S. were expelled in September 2021 after crossing the border with Mexico at Del Rio, Texas. Many were sent to ICE detention centers in Louisiana.

Conditions at the border for the men, women and children created a humanitarian crisis, which advocates say was not improved with their removal.

“You’ve seen the images, chains around the ankles, the bodies, the waist and the wrist. For people to be deported to Haiti that way, it’s very triggering,” said Ninaj Raoul with the Haitian Women’s group. “For Black people to see our people shackled and put on planes that way, it’s very demeaning.”

The purge of Haitians from Del Rio was allowed under Title 42, a provision in immigration law that allows the U.S. to expel asylum seekers for public health reasons. Officials leaned on the policy more heavily through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Biden administration only recently declared they will allow the public health emergency that amplified Title 42 use to expire in May. 

Another sizeable obstacle awaits Haitians in U.S. immigration courts, where their bonds are significantly higher. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) found bond payments for Haitians in 2019 and 2020 were 54% more than the average bond for all other countries. 

Asylum denial rates for Haitians are also sky-high. Between 2012 and 2017, RAICES data show 87% of their requests were turned down. 

The Jan. 31, 2023, deportations from Alexandria likely ensnared low-level offenders of Haitian descent, said Thomas Cartwright with Witness at the Border. A nonviolent offense as simple as marijuana possession could put an immigrant on the fast track back to the island nation.


Emails show pattern of racism

On Feb. 6, lawyers with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Project South released some of the more salient revelations from the public records obtained from ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review and the State Department. 

The organizations claim the emails show a pattern of racism, disregard for Black migrants, hostility toward advocates, and collusion between the U.S. and Cameroonian governments.

The attorneys targeted their requests to include the time period in 2020 when asylum seekers from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo went on a hunger strike in the Pine Prairie ICE Detention Facility in Evangeline Parish. The unified group protested their indefinite detention and for humane medical treatment. 

Less than two months later on Oct. 13, 2020, many of the hunger strikers were rounded up for a mass deportation.

Samah Sisay, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said ICE sought retaliation when its agents forced the detainees to sign deportation papers.

“You’re taking people from … these specific detention centers, who have been in the struggle for a long time, and you’re doing these mass deportation raids,” Sisay told the Illuminator. “Almost like a disappearing of witnesses.”

In an email regarding how to respond to a journalist asking about torture allegations at the Winn Detention Facility in Louisiana, an ICE public affairs official suggests responding with boilerplate language.

“Team, let’s add how we would internally investigate claims of misconduct as well … I know we have some standard language somewhere…” the official wrote in the email.

A U.S. State Department official’s email included their response to a news article about the U.S. immigration court in LaSalle Parish. “The concept that cases being brought by African asylum seekers are being tried by ‘weaponized Southern courts,’” the official said, citing the article, “if true, is incredibly disturbing.”

The emails also include an exchange among State Department employees about an experience one had with a Lyft driver from Cameroon who admitted he was in the U.S. illegally after his visa had expired.

“He then complained about why his friends could not get visas,” the State Department employee said. “I flat out told him (diplomatically of course) that it was people like him that made it difficult to do so since he had violated our laws…” 

“Glad you were able to give the taxi driver a lesson on the impact of overstays!” one of his colleagues responded.

In another exchange the lawyers said shows evidence of bureaucratic racism, State Department officials identified as “attachés of removal” discuss how one of them and his family is adapting to a new assignment in Africa.

“[It] took us a while to find a Catholic church that was not ‘africanized (sic), meaning long mass and lot’s (sic) of singing and hand waving,” the attaché replied. 

In response to questions from the German newspaper Der Spiegel, ICE characterized its flights to Cameroon and other African countries as special high-risk charters, a category typically used for people with criminal warrants or human rights violators. Deportees on the flights in question were mainly Black asylum seekers with substantial and credible fears of being forced to return home, according to a Human Rights Watch study published in February 2022. Others, they reported, had open and pending motions and appeals which should have precluded their removal. 

Email chains between State Department officials show the U.S. and Cameroon coordinate deportations closely without sharing information about the people being deported. 

Luz Lopez, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’Immigrant Justice Project, said she will soon litigate discrimination cases against ICE’s New Orleans field office. The findings in the new trove of public records were not a surprise, she said.

“Unfortunately, I’ve seen and heard from folks firsthand about how they were abused because they were Black and what our government was doing through the apparatus of ICE in the name of immigration enforcement,” Lopez told the Illuminator. 

Azadeh Shahshahani, an advocacy director at Project South, said combing through the documents has revealed a sharper picture of the U.S. immigration enforcement system.

“The violence against Haitian and Cameroonian migrants is not an aberration,” Shahshahani said in an email to the Illuminator. “It is part of a long history of systematic state abuse against Black migrants.”

There was no response to the Illuminator’s requests for comment from the U.S. State and Justice departments. Homeland Security declined to comment, and inquiries to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services were directed to ICE, which also did not respond.

A person wearing a uniform holds a form while in a detention facility corridor
Canva image

Danger, disaster await

 ICE’s New Orleans field office, the branch with oversight authority over the Alexandria staging site, did not respond to the Illuminator’s request for more information about the resumption of flights to Port au Prince, which will return Haitian migrants to near certain danger.

Turmoil and violence have been prevalent in the island nation since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Conspirators in the deadly plot have been traced to Florida, according to the Miami Herald, and their arrests have done little to quell the unrest.

Haiti has experienced five earthquakes with a magnitude of 5.0 or higher on the Richter scale since 2010, the year when a 7.0 tremor killed an estimated 220,000 people and injured far more.

Each natural disaster brings a new round of relief, but advocates say it only addresses immediate needs and not rebuilding the nation long term.  

“When you dump rice in a country that traditionally has grown their own rice with no problem, then you’re putting the rice farmers out of business,” Raoul said. “When you’re dumping peanuts, Haiti never had problems producing rice and peanuts. Those are staples.”

Turf wars among rival gangs engaged in organized crime have made certain sections of Haiti impassable.

“People that are living in the Haitian diaspora, that typically would go home, are afraid to if they have to pass to the south. There’s random violence and there’s targeted violence, but it’s all violence, and it’s all good reason to fear,” Raoul said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s not just in Haiti.” 

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights research and advocacy organization, said matters will only grow worse once Title 42 expires because the policy the administration is leaning toward will make it more difficult for certain migrants to apply for asylum if they passed through a third country and didn’t seek it there. 

“Even if [the transit ban] allows them to seek asylum, the administration plans to subject many migrants to expedited removal, an accelerated process that occurs while they are in … Border Patrol custody,” the WOLA report said. Expedited removal leaves little time to arrange for legal counsel. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection now requires anyone applying for asylum and an exemption from Title 42 to use its CPB One app, which in turn uses facial recognition software. But “algorithm bias” renders the app unable to read the facial features of dark-skinned people, interfering with their ability to upload photos, a requirement for an asylum appointment, according to a recent report from The Border Chronicle.

Fewer Haitians are now seeking asylum in the U.S., according to Department of Homeland Security numbers cited in the WOLA report. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas attributed the decrease to the administration’s immigration policy. 

Since being granted access in January, Haitians are scrambling to qualify, along with Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans, for sponsored entry to the U.S. under the humanitarian parole program. As long as they fly in and have a passport, 30,000 people a month will be accepted as temporary residents for a two-year stint. 

The cost of a passport in Haiti is $50, which would take a worker making an average wage more than 10 days to earn. Even so, the demand has greatly exceeded the supply.


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