Two Cameroonian men slated for deportation from the United States were pulled off an ICE flight moments before takeoff on Tuesday as part of an investigation into abuse they alleged they endured in U.S. custody, according to an ICE official with direct knowledge of the incident and immigration advocates.
The two men are part of a group of eight Cameroonian asylum seekers who alleged ICE coerced them into signing their deportation documents through force, including the use of pepper spray. Others who alleged abuse were never taken to the airport, their lawyers told NBC News. It is not clear, however, if any of the eight have been deported.
The allegations were detailed in a complaint brought on behalf of the men by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Freedom for Immigrants, the Cameroonian American Council and others and sent to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General and Civil Rights and Civil Liberties section.
“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,” one of the men, who remained anonymous, said in the complaint.
In response to the allegations in the complaint, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said: “ICE does not comment on specific matters presented to the Office of the Inspector General, which provides independent oversight and accountability within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That said, in general, sensationalist unsubstantiated allegations are irresponsible, and should be treated with the greatest of skepticism.”
He added: “ICE is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody. ICE provides safe, humane, and appropriate conditions of confinement for individuals detained in its custody.”
An ICE official said some of the men were kept back in order to be interviewed by the investigating agencies, but that does not mean they will not be deported at a later date.
Human rights groups say those deported are likely to face grave risks upon their return to Cameroon, including the threat of execution.
“Our government utterly failed to provide these individuals the safety and refuge they came looking for," said Luz Lopez, senior supervising attorney with Southern Poverty Law Center‘s Immigrant Justice Project. "They fled persecution only to be met with ICE detention and a one way flight back to being in harm’s way."
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus wrote letters to Tony Pham, acting director of ICE, urging the agency to investigate the complaint and to reconsider deporting asylum seekers from Cameroon.
Citing human rights violations, members of Congress said the "ongoing Anglophone crisis" and the emergence of groups like Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa make it "a moral and legal imperative to ensure Cameroonians are being given the upmost concern in their asylum cases.”
Changes in asylum law under the Trump administration have made it increasingly hard for asylum seekers, particularly those who cross into the United States over the southern border, to win their cases.
Rachel Naggar, an immigration lawyer with Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., represents a Cameroonian woman who is awaiting deportation after a judge raised questions about her account of being raped and beaten by military officials.
“In my client’s case, she submitted medical records, letters from witnesses, and evidence of the violent political situation in Cameroon. Yet, she was found not credible,” Naggar said.
“Some of the inconsistencies cited by the judge do not appear in the record, and are just mistakes in the judge’s memory of the testimony. Others are based on the judge’s personal opinions."
Naggar said the judge didn't believe that her client was hospitalized for eight days after being raped and beaten by military officials "because the medical records did not show any broken bones or serious injuries."
A spokeswoman for ICE has not yet confirmed how many Cameroonians were deported on the Tuesday flight.