US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) has been denounced as a “rogue agency” after new allegations of assaults on asylum seekers emerged, and deportations of African and Caribbean migrants continued in defiance of the Biden administration’s orders.
Joe Biden unveiled his immigration agenda on Tuesday, and his homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was confirmed by the Senate, but the continued deportations suggested the Biden White House still does not have full control of Ice, which faces multiple allegations of human rights abuses and allegations that it has disproportionately targeted black migrants.
A coalition of immigrant rights groups published affidavits from Cameroonian asylum seekers who they said were tortured by being forced to approve their own deportations. The asylum seekers described being forced to the floor and having their fingers inked and pressed on to deportation documents they had refused to sign.
An Ice plane deporting Cameroonian, Angolan, Congolese and other African migrants is expected to leave Louisiana on Wednesday, despite an order from the incoming Biden administration for a 100-day suspension of deportation flights.
A Trump-appointed judge in Texas blocked the Biden moratorium last week, approving a challenge from the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, who played a leading role in the attempt to overturn the election result.
However, the judge did not block guidelines laid down by the then acting secretary of homeland security David Pekoske, which came into effect on Monday and stipulated that deportations should be limited to suspected terrorists, convicted felons deemed a “threat to public safety”, and migrants who arrived after 1 November last year.
Ice carried out a deportation flight to Haiti on Tuesday morning carrying people who fit none of those criteria. One of the deportees on that flight was Paul Pierrilus, a 40-year-old financial consultant from New York state, who had never been to Haiti and is not a Haitian citizen, according to the country’s ambassador to Washington. The ambassador, Bocchit Edmond, has told activists he was taken by surprise by the deportation but did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Pierrilus was taken off a 19 January deportation flight at the last moment after the intervention of his local congressman, Mondaire Jones. But despite that temporary reprieve, , he was driven to an Ice airfield in Alexandria, Louisiana, early on Tuesday and put on a plane to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.
“There was nothing we could do to stop it,” said Jones, the Democratic representative for New York’s 17th district. “Unfortunately, Paul’s story is not uncommon. Black immigrants have been disproportionately targeted and deported by our racist, inhumane immigration system, particularly in recent weeks.”
Jones told the Guardian: “Ice is a rogue agency that must be brought to heel. There is no world in which an agency under the control of the leader of the executive branch should continue to deport people after the president of the United States signed an executive order halting deportations for 100 days.”
There was no response from the National Security Council to questions about any further attempts to stop the Ice flights. The state department referred queries to the department of homeland security (DHS). The DHS did not respond.
On Monday, a coalition of migrant rights groups – Freedom for Immigrants, Al Otro Lado and Advocates for Immigrants Rights – presented fresh allegations to the DHS of what they described as torture of Cameroonian asylum-seekers.
One of them, identified by the initials HT, described being brought into a room with darkened windows on 14 January at the Winn correctional center, where he was forced by Ice agents to put his fingerprint on a document in lieu of a signature, waiving his rights to further legal process before deportation.
“I tried to stand up because of the force that they were using on me, and they tripped me,” HT said. “I fell on the floor; I kept my hands under my body. I held my hands tight at waist level so they could not have them. Five of the Ice officers and one of the officers in green … joined them. They pressed me down and said that I needed to give them my finger for the fingerprint.”
HT’s statement went on: “As one was pressing on my neck with their hands, the other came in front of me, pulling my head from above, straightening my neck so they could easily suppress me. One climbed onto my back. I had a lot of trouble breathing. This happened for more than two minutes. I was gasping for air. I told them: ‘Please, I can’t breathe.’ I asked them to release me. They said that they didn’t care; what they need is my fingerprint.”
An Ice spokesperson said it would not be possible to respond to the allegations by the end of Tuesday. The agency was previously accused of using torture to force inmates to sign deportation waivers in October.
Most, if not all, the Cameroonians on Wednesday’s scheduled flight are English speakers from the west and south of the country, who fear imprisonment, torture or death on return in the midst of a brutal civil conflict between the government and anglophone separatists.
Martha, the sister of one of the Cameroonian deportees, identified only as NF for reasons of his security, said they were the only surviving members of their family, after their brothers were killed by government security forces for being members of a non-violent organisation, the Southern Cameroons National Council.
“He is definitely going to be jailed for a very long time. I am not back home so I can bribe his way out, which is the only way you get out,” said Martha, who arrived in the US before her brother and was granted asylum.
“That’s why I’m really shaking right now, because I don’t know what is going to happen when he’s jailed. There were people that went on the first [Ice deportation] flight in October and they are still in jail.”
Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen said on Tuesday: “Ice is accelerating pending flights for many of these asylum seekers who escaped torture and death in their home countries, only to be sent back into imminent danger without fair or complete consideration of their asylum requests.”
He added: “This is unacceptable and goes against our values as a nation. Ice must halt these flights at once.”