Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation.
On a sweltering afternoon in the heart of bustling downtown Monrovia, Moriba Kamara’s bony, chafed hands shake as he talks about his months inside a Liberian maximum-security prison. “I didn’t sleep. I was always afraid.” He feared he would not make it out alive and was constantly thinking, “Maybe this is the place [I’ll] be taken to be assassinated.”
Kamara’s eyes well up as he remembers how “the whole day we [were] locked up, the whole night we [were] locked up. We had no access to go to recreation, nothing.” He and his fellow prisoners were forced to defecate in a bucket inside their cell, which often overflowed. “I got dysentery,” he recalls. “I tried to talk to the prison director to take me to the hospital, but they said no.”
Kamara was one of twenty-two deportees expelled from the United States to Liberia in December 2008 by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Some had served time in US jails for minor offenses. Others, like Kamara, had committed no crime. But for reasons that were unclear to them, all were labeled a security threat upon arriving in Liberia’s capital city. Bedraggled and weak after spending months in immigration detention followed by a long flight to Monrovia during which they were shackled, the deportees were forced onto a bus headed for Zwedru National Corrections Palace, an imposing, isolated structure that is home to convicted murderers, rapists and, occasionally, US deportees.
Video by Carlos Pareja
Zwedru is only 184 miles from Monrovia, but the trip can take days on the unpaved and sometimes hazardous roads. Along the way, “we stopped in every city, whether small or big,” remembers deportee Bill Passawe. “People booed at the vehicle. People screamed ‘criminals coming from America’ and stuff like that.” The public display was meant to show Liberians that their government was taking action to protect them from this group of convicts. But “we really didn’t have no clue why we were in jail,” says Sandra Komai, another deportee who had been jailed in the United States on minor drug charges. “When I left Liberia, I was a small child. I had committed no crime in Liberia.”
Kamara, too, left Liberia as a child, fleeing after his father was murdered by rebels during the civil war. He crossed into neighboring Guinea, only to face years of persecution—jailings and beatings—because he came from the Mandingo ethnic group, which had allegedly backed Liberia’s dictator, Samuel Doe. In 2007 he decided to seek asylum in the United States. Arriving in New Jersey, he was immediately imprisoned at the Elizabeth Detention Center. “It is better for me to be in detention until my death,” he remembers telling officials there. “I can’t be deported to Liberia.”
Video by Carlos Pareja
Kamara is only one of 359,795 people who were deported by the United States in 2008. The number has gone up. For all the rhetoric—particularly on the right—about cracking down on illegal immigration, Americans know relatively little about why people are deported or how. Rarely does anyone question what happens to deportees once they leave.