by Cindy Knoebel

Cameroonians in detention rightly fear deportation, given Cameroon's devasting poverty, history of government corruption and violence against civilians. A new CRCL complaint lays out disturbing testimony from three Cameroonians held at Winn Correctional Center in Winfield, LA who reported that ICE used coercion and force to obtain the signature of deportation documents.

The CRCL (Civil Rights and Civil Liberties) complaint was filed by Freedom for Immigrants, Louisiana Advocates for Immigrants in Detention, Al Otro Lado Advocates for Immigrant Rights, and Lara Nochomovitz, Esq on February 1. The three asylum seekers cited in the complaint face imminent deportation and life-threatening consequences if returned to Cameroon.

"We are alarmed at the continued lack of oversight and complete disregard for the law, given the numerous civil rights complaints Freedom for Immigrants and others have filed in the past 6 months reporting similar violence and coercion in the forced signing of deportation documents within the New Orleans ICE office area of responsibility, including at Winn Correctional Center," the complaint read.  

Local visitation groups and attorneys received reports by phone and by in-person regarding the violence and abuse the three Cameroonians experienced. The three asylum seekers later called the Freedom for Immigrants National Hotline reporting the same abuse and corroborating incidents of physical assault, choking, and beating in attempts to force their signatures.

On January 14, one of the asylum seekers (H.T.) was summoned from his tier to another area where he found four officers waiting.

The man in red told me that he needed my fingerprint for my traveling documents. I told him that I cannot put my fingerprint on the traveling document because he is talking about deportation,  that he was going to force me if I refuse, according to a January 21 interview with H.T. referenced in the complaint.

He continued: The officer repeated that he was going to use force because he needed my fingerprint to identify me. I responded to the officer that I am having a problem in my country and I cannot go back.

As I told him that I would not give him my fingerprint, Davis and a Spanish speaking officer who was standing behind me grabbed my arms. I tried to stand up because of the force that they were using on me, and they tripped me ... 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, Smiley, joined them. They pressed me down and said that I needed to give them my finger for the fingerprint. When I was lying on the floor, they told me that I had to give my finger to the man in red. 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. They said that, unless I gave them my fingerprint, they would not release me.

The officers were telling me that I should not resist, that I had to give them my finger, and that they did not care about what happens to me. I was weakened by feeling suffocated.They took my hands from underneath me and handcuffed them onto my back. They took the ink, put my right index finger on it and put it onto the paper. Once they finally got the fingerprint, they lifted me up from the floor and the ICE officers said that they should take me to medical.

H.T. suffered painful, swollen wrists and hands. As of January 28, he still had wounds on his neck from the incident.

A shockingly similar assault took place that very same day. F.A. was called from his dorm to meet with ICE and encountered H.T. on the way. He noticed H.T. had bruises on his neck and was almost in tears.

This time, eight officers were waiting. F.A. recounted what happened next in his testimony:

When I got into the B-side, Facility the man in red and asked me to sit down where there was a table. I sat down and another officer placed a paper in front of me which I realized was a paper concerning my deportation. From my understanding, they needed my signature and fingerprints for my removal. He said that he wanted me to sign your deportation. If you do not comply, we are going to use force on you. I explained that I cannot sign this document because I am still fighting for my case and asked them to give me a chance.  The man in the red asked me three times. Are you going to sign? Every time, I said, “No I will not sign.”

After I refused the third time, the officers who were behind me approached me and I immediately put my hands in my armpits. They started pressing on me, some on my neck, others my hands to try and handcuff me ... I tried to stand and keep my arms in my armpits so they would not have access to my fingerprints and someone in the group tripped me. I fell onto the ground and as I fell, I kept my hands tightly close to my body. Two people pressed my neck with their knees, and one had a hand on my head ...  I started having trouble breathing. I said, “I cannot breathe, this is not fair.” Others were on my back trying to pull my arms away from my body. Someone squeezed my ankles; my knees were pinned tight onto the ground, like they were trying to bend my leg backwards. It felt like they were trying to break my ankle. The whole time, I was screaming and shouting that this is not right. I said “This is not fair. This is because I am black. This is a racist act. If I go back to my country, they will kill me, and you know it.”

At this point, one of the officers climbed onto F.A.'s back: I begged them “please don’t do this, what you are doing is not right. Please don’t do this, I beg you.” The man in red told me “we don’t care” and a huge man who is aging with tattoos on his hands. They succeeded in removing my hands away from my body and someone handcuffed me. The huge white man in red came close to me with the paper. There was ink, after they pressed my right index finger into the ink, I realized what they were doing. They took my hand and tried to press it on the paper. I tried to bend my finger away from the paper. When I did that, they tried to break my finger. I had to give up and they put my fingerprint on the paper.

F.A. was also taken to medical after the assault. "They had broken me," he said in his interview. "All my joints were in pain and I was in pain in my wrists, my neck, my ankles, my finger, and my knees. Emotionally, I was very disturbed. I was hyperventilating."

The CRCL complaint cites a myriad of violations of Louisiana state and federal law, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, which the United States has ratified, and ICE’s own policies within the Performance Based National Standards 2011. "ICE officers’ pattern and practice of physical and verbal coercion are unlawful, unacceptable and tantamount to torture," the complaint stated.

The complaint urged CRCL and the Office of the Inspector General to immediately take the following steps:

1)    Demand an immediate stay of deportation for the individuals named in this complaint, until CRCL or the Office of the Inspector General can investigate the actions of ICE and its agents in the unlawful procurement of signatures on deportation documents.

2)    Should you find that these allegations of ICE officers’ excessive use of force are founded, we urge you to identify the reason that the New Orleans Field Office failed to investigate prior allegations once they were made aware of the abuse, and to hold the responsible parties accountable for the above-detailed violations of law.

3)    Finally, we request that ICE provide us with any use of force videos and other reports or documents generated in relation to the above-described incidents, as well as the deportation documents that the three victims were forced to sign or forcibly fingerprint.

The complaint was sent to Kathy Culliton-Gonzalez, Officer for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, Department of Homeland Security and The Honorable Joseph V. Cuffari, DHS Inspector General.