Two months have passed since U.S. border patrol officers were captured on video floggingHaitian asylum seekers armed with riding crops. The Biden administration is continuing its pursuit to deport Black asylum seekers. It uses a seemingly simple but still deadly 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.
Asylum seekers cannot be deported to their home country while their asylum cases are pending. If they demonstrate, it is against U.S. law. “credible fear” of persecution or violence.
It’s unfathomable It is outrageous that DHS denies the credible fear claims of these Mauritanian asylum seeker after all they have endured and escaped.
Mauritania, an African country that is 90 percent desert and whose economy cannot support its 4.7 million inhabitants, is called “Mauritania”. 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. Black Mauritanians, however, must flee from oppression if no governmental or international action is taken. They can only rely on help from their village and family members abroad.
Asylum seekers I.C. I.C. 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:
I was forced to work in Mauritania for white Arabs, without any 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 twice. I was wrongfully imprisoned twice. The first time was for two weeks. The second time I was held in confinement lasted approximately 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….
M.A. is a third man who also suffered enslavement and torture. He has passed the credible fear interview and can meet all other conditions for release. He is still being held at Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana, where he is a for-profit prisoner. 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 which oversaw the brutal. mass deportationsBlack Africans in the final days of Trump’s administration and against whom Cameroonians at Pine Prairie detention facility committed a desperate act of violence hunger strikeProtest their long detentions, which are measured in years and not weeks or months.
“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. He says that care seems to exist only in theories.
I.C. I.C. They are in an anxiety-induced panic attack. They could be pulled out of Georgia’s Stewart Detention Centers and Richwood Correctional Centers, respectively, by any moment. Their credible fear claims have been denied. ICE Air charter flights back to Mauritania — and back to enslavement.
PhotosSmuggled out from a Mauritanian jail were provided with TruthoutLynn Tramonte, director Ohio Immigrant AllianceThey were given to him by a nonprofit that received them from him. This was a Black Mauritanian man who was deported from the U.S. in Jan 2021. They are a confirmation of 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 slaves into a hereditary system of chattel slavery, wherein “white Arab” and Berber families own Black families as private property. Rest of the victims have been forced into servitude or tricked by their lack of IDs, which is a hindrance to employment. King explains this in an August 2021 article white paperPublished by Arab Reform Initiative:
Slavery in Mauritania can also be considered 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 make up only 30% of the country’s population. The enslaved are Blacks from within Mauritania’s Arab-Islamic linguistic and cultural sphere (Black Arabs or Sudan).
This means that if the higher-ups in Biden’s administration don’t meaningfully intervene, I.C. I.C. und I.W. could soon be reinserted into the catastrophe that pushed them to U.S. shores in the first place. They could soon be reintroduced to the disaster that brought them to U.S. shores. Their search will have been futile, except to have contributed to the coffers for-profit prison operators extracting billions from U.S taxpayers every year that immigrant solitary detention is allowed.
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 through Brazil and the jungle to reach the southern border of the United States. In just 24 hours, he was released from jail after a nationwide fundraiser on social media. “When he got released,” Sy recalled, “I said I need to do more for the Mauritanian people.”
She has interviewed253 people, 75 per cent of which are Mauritanians, were deported under Trump’s administrations. Twenty others fled to Canada for fear of being deported. Sy describes a streamlined relationship between DHS, officials in Mauritania. It is based on the following lines: DHS must get a permit to deport Mauritanians from Mauritania. laissez-passerDocument proving that deported citizens are citizens is routinely provided by Mauritanian consulate. She claims that ICE officials bring only the men to tarmac.
The returning men, who have no identification documentation, are unable to prove their citizenship at the airport. They are taken to the prisons (like that pictured) and held there until they can bribe, or otherwise secure their way out. They are then harassed and sometimes hounded (one man was questioned 15 times) because they are undocumented. They are also ineligible for 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 2019These are widely recognized as being inaccurate. The Mauritanian Network of Human Rights in America was established earlier this year. issued a statementDeploring the false image of human rights advancements made in Mauritania 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.”
DHS will meet with advocates to discuss the designation of TPS for Mauritanians. However, immigration judges continue to pretend overly optimistic United Nations Reports on Mauritania 1996, written after the 1989 massacres had ended. These reports were later revised in 2012, when a fraction Mauritanians forced across the border to Senegal’s border were allowed to return.
Send an email Truthout, Tramonte condemned the UN’s assessments, saying:
There is so much wrong with the content of these, it’s impossible to do justice. Nevertheless, there are a few things that stand out: Haratines belong to the SLAVE group of the [White Arabs]. They are not empowered. They do not have the same rights and privileges as the other Black African ethnic groups (Fulani Wolof Soninke, Bambara and Wolof), [White Arabs]. If the issues weren’t so serious, it would be absurd to think that all those who returned from Senegal got their land and cattle back. People were murdered for their land, women raped, and dissidents tortured in prison. This is the highest form of gaslighting.
However, the fact that U.S. officials intentionally bury their heads in the sand doesn’t change the ground reality. “Slavery exists in Mauritania,” Sy says. “Black Mauritanians cannot be 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 claims that despite all the attempts at dehumanizing and disempowering them, the Mauritanian immigrants she works with inspire and motivate her 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 Mauritanians detained in Ohio between 2017-2019, who formed a network and looked 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? The person calls us, and we call their attorney. Their attorney files last-minute stays, and sometimes they take people off the plane. They were familiar with the law, and they were looking at appeals times. Three men wanted to be a part of the group. Habeas corpusPetitions filed. We raised some money, found some lawyers, and their strategy worked: they got out.”
However, strength comes in numbers but vulnerability is found in isolation. Tramonte is currently working with Tramonte on a case involving a single Black Mauritanian male incarcerated in a remote rural Michigan county.
“DHS will place Black Muslim men in county jails where the county is 99.9% 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 Salal, an advocate working alongside 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 particularly distressing. “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 COVD test,” Sall said.
Another case involved DHS releasing a Black Mauritanian male from Louisiana detention. However, ICE agents drove him into Mississippi, where he was dropped 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 access language services and gain freedom. I’m here for them. I’m their voice; they cannot talk for themselves.”
I.C. I.C. González had to fight hard even for this concession.
“And there is no guarantee he will get a different result,” he said.
M.A. is a torture survivor whose imprisonment has made it impossible for him to heal from the trauma he suffered. His advocates want him freed from Richwood so he can be 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. They are then incarcerated when they seek help. It’s really disgusting.”