Claudia and Vera are two of 140 Cameroonian women who were held at the Don Hutto immigration detention facility in Texas earlier this year. They were temporarily released in the summer – but not before they helped lead mass protests against the conditions inside the facilities.
In the facility, more than 500 women are held in cramped, unsanitary cramped cells, sometimes without access to basic needs like soap or showers. Those held in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody have frequently reported ice-cold temperatures, giving these facilities the nickname ‘ice-box’. There’s even been outbreaks of flu, scabies and other diseases. Hutto has also been in the spotlight for allegations of sexual abuse, where one victim claimed she faced indefinite periods of solitary confinement as ICE officials tried to get her to retract her statement.
A letter written by Dr. Allen Keller to health officials in Williamson County, Texas, pleaded for the release of all detained at Don Hutto. “Crowded conditions and limited healthcare capacity make it unsafe for detained immigrants,” he wrote. “Their psychological distress worsens the longer they remain in detention.”
Claudia and Vera tell me these conditions became ever more concerning with the threat of COVID-19 this year. “We sat in the hallway crying, weeping, and praying. We decided to protest because it was the only way to express our emotions,” Vera told me.
“We sat in the hallway crying, weeping, and praying. We decided to protest because it was the only way to express our emotions”
Together they helped organise a sit-in on 24 February 2020, when more than 80 women sat in front of the facility’s medical centre to protest medical neglect. They allege that the facility denied parole and medical attention to those with serious health issues, including an older Black woman in a wheelchair who was very ill.
The women held meetings at the detention facility’s gym hall or recreational ground to discuss what actions they were going to take. “Sometimes we met outside when we were allowed to get some fresh air,” Claudia told me. “We were allowed to visit each other’s dormitories, we ate together in the dining hall and during these moments, information was being shared.”
Some groups of women wrote letters to immigration advocacy organisations across the country and coordinated getting as many people to sign the letters as possible. They met with advocates such as Sylvie Bello, founder of Cameroon American Council (CAC) and provided them with names of detainees and sponsors in the US, whose custody the detainees could be released into.
After the 24 February sit-in, 47 of the Cameroonian protestors were transferred to the Rio Grande detention centre in Laredo, Texas. “A few weeks later, all the rest were transferred to different facilities in Louisiana,” said Claudia.
ICE officials have allegedly transferred asylum seekers as a form of retaliation – to punish them for speaking out about their conditions in custody. Transfers often mean that people are forced to start their cases over again with new lawyers, and they can break down friendships between protesters. “ICE threatened them [for speaking out]. Harassed them. Then sent them to more remote, more racist detentions,” reported Bello.
Now, only twelve remain at Rio Grande. Claudia and Vera are currently assisting CAC in fighting to get them out.
“They are the true fighters,” said Bello. “Vera and Claudia are abolitionists in every sense of the word. They were detained, got freedom and are fighting for the release of their fellow protestors left behind.”
“They are the true fighters… abolitionists in every sense of the word. They were detained, got freedom and are fighting for the release of their fellow protestors left behind.”
In June, Vera appeared before an immigration judge and was granted release on the grounds of “withholding of removal”. According to the Department of Justice, this means that it is “more likely than not” the applicant’s life or freedom would be threatened if they were deported to their home country. This does not prevent Vera from being deported or “removed” to somewhere else such as neighbouring Nigeria – another country wrought with violent conflict. Nor does it authorise her to legally work while released in the States.
Claudia was released on “humanitarian parole”, which permits temporary entry into the US if there is “a compelling emergency”. With both releases, their days are numbered. One year is typically the maximum time allowed for these conditions. Once her time on parole has expired, she can either be deported or sent back into ICE custody.
Ongoing conflicts in Cameroon
Claudia, Vera and organisations like CAC and Grassroots Leadership are demanding deportations to Cameroon be stopped as the country is going through a brutal civil war. “Ten thousand Cameroonians are fleeing various armed conflicts. They colonised, raped, enslaved us, and now we are fighting what amounts to a language war,” says Bello.
Bello is referring to one of several internal conflicts in Cameroon – commonly referred to as the Anglophone Crisis that kicked off in 2016. In 1884, France and the UK controlled their own territories within the protectorate of Cameroon, with both cultures influencing the state for decades after. Today, the English-speaking people are a minority referred to as ‘separatists’ who feel they’ve been economically marginalised. The US-backed Francophones make up about 80% of Cameroonians.
Both sides of the conflict have been ruthless in advancing their agenda. On 14 February – Valentine’s Day – government forces killed at least 21 civilians including 13 children and burned several homes according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). On the other side, ‘separatists’ have burned schools to the ground, preventing thousands of children from going to school and engaged in kidnappings and extortion, also according to HRW.
“Every day, it gets worse,” Jacqueline Ndi told openDemocracy. Jacqueline left her home in Cameroon in 2003 – the year that violence against women was brought to the forefront at the 31st Session of the UN Committee against Torture. She emigrated to the States, where she was granted asylum within one month of her application. She wasn’t detained. She didn’t have to go through the courts. She didn’t have to face an immigration judge or rely on an overworked immigration lawyer to plead her case.
But this was almost 15 years before the Trump administration made it harder than ever to escape from the brutality of war. Now, her “kid brother” – as she describes her 44-year-old sibling – is currently detained in Jackson Parish Detention Center in Louisiana – despite having a close family member willing to sponsor his release, and a “credible fear of persecution” in Cameroon. Ndi is baffled as to why he hasn’t been released into her custody and is terrified of what would happen were he to be sent back to Cameroon. “It’s not going to get any better. People are dying every day. It's a very bad situation,” she said.
“They [the US authorities] have a system in place that they're not following. He has ‘credible fear’. The violence in Cameroon has been ongoing for about five years now. There were incidents where he was targeted, so he had to flee because his life was in certain danger,” said Ndi.
Yet, asylum seekers from Cameroon and other African countries riddled with conflict continue to be deported on secret chartered flights by ICE officials. On 13 October, 60 people were deported and there were further deportations on 11 November. Advocates reported another ‘death flight,’ as many have called them, took place on 14 December, in Alexandria, LA.
Claudia and Vera believe women especially fare the worst outcomes from the ongoing war and that they are being forced to return to a country from which people have fought so hard to escape. They, along with groups like CAC, are putting the pressure on the Congressional Black Caucus, specifically, to demand Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which would immediately halt deportations to Cameroon and enable migrants to work in the US. On 20 November, Cameroonian women and their friends and family gathered outside the offices of five CBC members demanding justice be served for Black asylum seekers who are typically forgotten about in the discussion for immigrant rights.