The borders of our world not only cut across international boundaries; they also increasingly stretch deeply into the interior of nations—into our homes, cities, communities, courts, and everyday interactions. Citizenship status, visa status, vulnerability to deportation—these are just a few of the dividing lines increasingly separating our country into different communities with starkly different options for how or if its members become full participants in our national experiment.
As immigrants in the United States, both documented and not, are increasingly under attack—stripped of their status, arrested, and deported—it’s critical that their stories are heard across these borders. Migrant Voices is an oral testimony project from The Nation exploring, and listening to, a variety of immigrant voices: from recent arrivals to asylum seekers making their case in the courts, from the undocumented keeping under the radar to the DACAmented on the front lines—people from all over the world who have fled or left their homes and are looking to find, or keep, their place in America.
This is the ninth installment of this series—follow the series here.
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There are more than 900 known cases of the novel coronavirus inside immigration detention centers. The actual number is certainly much higher, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement has tested only a little more than 2,000 detainees. The 200-plus immigration detention centers spread throughout the country—isolated, overcrowded, without sufficient medical staff—are effectively petri dishes for contagion, primed for the people locked up in them to contract and spread the virus. Given the fact that the government doesn’t even have to keep people locked up in immigration detention—by law, they could be paroled out—it is particularly galling to recall that over 30,000 people remain inside. To keep all its residents safe, Portugal, for example, took the unprecedented step of temporarily bestowing citizenship rights on all migrants and asylum seekers, so that they could access the necessary health care. The United States is taking the opposite approach: Using the virus as an excuse to further implement the anti-immigrant agenda the Trump administration has been pushing since the 2016 campaign, it is not only keeping migrants and asylum seekers locked up but also continuing to deport them, even when infected, to countries without the capacity to handle the disease, effectively deporting the virus.
Giscard, an asylum-seeker from Cameroon, has been detained in the United States for more than two years. Having been shuffled through a series of detention centers, he is currently locked up in Louisiana in the LaSalle Correctional Facility. Through a series of letters and phone calls, Giscard explained to me the deeply unsettling conditions he is currently suffering; the torture, imprisonment, and persecution he fled in southern Cameroon; and his long and trying journey to get to the United States.
Because we couldn’t meet in person, Giscard and I communicated by mail, and I was able to follow up by phone. Giscard explained to me that “social distancing is practically impossible” in LaSalle. And that while guards come and occasionally sanitize the barrack where he and about 100 other detainees are stuffed, “some of them wear masks, others don’t.” At least one of the dorms in LaSalle had already seen an infection, and all of its detainees have been transferred. Despite the very real threat, Giscard told me: “I’m scared of nothing right now. I’ve seen my life turned upside down. Anything that comes my way, I can handle it.”
Giscard, 33 years old
I must say it is a great pleasure for me to write to you! I’m doing well, thanks for asking. Hope you too are doing well. As you already know, these are challenging moments for us in detention. As a result, it is normal to hear us at times say we are depressed, at times thinking negatively, and losing hope of survival.
I know my story will need some editing because my English is not that good. I hope the messages in my story will be understood.
I am a refugee in prison, but some people call it detention. Prison or detention doesn’t really matter because I am confined to one environment and my freedom seized as well as my every movement and action monitored. The only difference of where I am from the prisons where I come from is the fact that the system here is trying too hard for us to catch pneumonia, as, irrespective of the climate, the cells are always frozen.
Before I start with my life and time in my country Cameroon, permit me to tell you a little bit of the history of the English part of Cameroon known as Southern Cameroons. Cameroon is a bilingual country speaking French and English. Cameroon is divided into 10 regions with the Southern Cameroons occupying just two regions and making up 20 percent of the total population. Since the independence of Southern Cameroons in 1961, we have had no control over airports, seaports, or our roads.
When the two Cameroons joined to become one, there was a constitution that was not to be tampered or messed with. For example, it was agreed that at no point should the majority use their numbers to impose laws and authority on the minority. It was also agreed that if at some point in the future one part feels as the union is not moving as said and that if they feel that the terms of agreement are being violated, they have the right to quit the union. We feel that we are being assimilated. They are trying to turn the country into a French country and want to assimilate the Southern Cameroons, which we refuse to be assimilated.
I come from a small agricultural town, Muyuka. There are no farm-to-market roads. We have a cocoa plantation. You need to see the level of suffering farmers from this part undergo just to take their product to the market. Some even end up dying just in the name of trying to take their goods to the market that is controlled by the government. They dictate the price of the goods and the prices keep fluctuating all the time. A kilogram of cocoa is sold in Ivory Coast at $5 but in Southern Cameroons it is sold at less than $2. Timber is being exploited and exported every day from Anglophone Cameroon to France, but we have classrooms in some parts where children sit on the floor to learn.
My dad and my uncle were members of a pressure group in Cameroon known as Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) fighting for the restoration of former British Cameroon. This group has been studying the problems of the southern Cameroonians and writing petitions to the government, who were slow and reluctant to react. Through my dad and my uncle I also became a member of the SCNC and began participating in protest marches and in organizing meetings. In 2016 when lawyers in Anglophone Cameroon were protesting, the government sent military to go beat them up and shoot them. We all saw the inhuman treatment and said enough is enough. From this point on the fight took a different dimension. Being an Anglophone Cameroonian and seeing all these, I was left with no choice than to join the struggle for the betterment of the future of Southern Cameroons.
As an SCNC member, I always participated in protest marches and organized SCNC meetings, which the government considers unauthorized gatherings. In one of our meetings at my uncle’s place, we were raided by a security team that was made up of the police, gendarmerie, and army. The meeting ground now became a survival of the fittest with everyone trying to escape. Little did we know that some soldiers were stationed at the roads we were to use for our escape. As I was running some were behind me, and I ran to the stationed ones, who caught me, and some few seconds later the ones that were chasing me came to the scene. None of them asked me any questions, they just immediately started beating me. They were like six in number, some were kicking, some boxing, some hitting me with their baton. I stretched out my hands trying to cover my face, but one of them grabbed my right hand and used a military technique and dislocated my right shoulder. Then one held my leg and was dragging me on the ground, over sharp stones, broken bottles, and various sharp objects. All this while none of them said a word in English or pidgin, which is the common language spoken all over the Anglophone Cameroon. I was then moved to where their car was parked. There I meet several other members who also did not succeed in escaping, plus my uncle Deni. I tried escaping again. But I’d lost my energy, I was weak so I didn’t get very far. The last thing I was aware of was something hitting me on the head.
The only good thing about the police in my country is the fact that you really have to be a hardened criminal for them to handcuff you. So we were taken to the station without being shackled. At the station I was interrogated.… My answer to all these questions was negative, no no no. So they considered me to be a hardened criminal, said I didn’t want to cooperate. So the beating started. I was tied up like an animal pending slaughter, and they used their batons to beat me under my feet, on my back, and even on my head. No result was gotten, so they threatened my life, and this time put me in a hanging chair where they attempted to suffocate me with a bucket of water.
In the cell that I was assigned, I met some criminals who also contributed to beating me…. I had a swollen face, I spat blood. My whole body was hurting. I was scared that I might die, if not in the hands of the police then maybe in the hands of my fellow inmates.… The cell had no toilet. We slept on the floor with no cover, no window for ventilation. The cell was dark and there was much writing on the walls. The writing was mostly done with pear seeds or avocado seeds, kola nuts, chalk, or the end product of a burned wood commonly known as “chacol” in pidgin language. Printed on the wall, some with beautiful handcraft, one could see the names of some notorious criminals like “Don for Quart,” “Grand Bokilo,” “Serpent Noir,” and many lines like “Fuck the Police.” The room had a pungent odor one that could cause a pregnant women to miscarry. I remember throwing up when I just got in the room. No place to sit on, but each had a spot on the floor. Mine was just close, I mean the closest, to the bucket used for bowel movement. I basically inhaled all the pungent odor from the bowels of my fellow inmates. In the morning I was called again for another interrogation, another nightmare with a series of threat and beatings, the guards laughing at me. I had the feeling I had been to hell and back. I felt like the weight of the whole world was on my head. I lost appetite and I was very weak.
My life as a refugee started when I fled my country to our neighboring country, Nigeria. The pressure was hot in Cameroon, and is currently still hot after several escapes from being caught by the soldiers who burned down houses, killed, and raped women. I was advised to flee. I therefore respected Matthew 10:23, “When they persecute you in one place, flee to another.” That was why and how I found myself in Nigeria. Most of the SCNC members that fled to Nigeria were being arrested and extradited back to Cameroon. Hence the place was no longer safe for us and I again moved to where I knew it would be safer for me. Ecuador was my next stop because of its easy visa requirements for us African nationals.
My journey from Ecuador to the United States is an experience I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy to undergo. This journey through the Darién Gap is classified as one of the most dangerous and deadliest journeys on Earth. It comprises all means of transportation but flight—aboard vehicles, on boats, trekking, and piggyback if necessary.
From Ecuador we traveled north through Colombia. At Turbo, the most difficult part of the journey began. The only way to get to Colombia was to arrange with some fishermen who were introduced to us, who from my point of view were very much involved with the trafficking business. We each paid $250. The journey we were told was a five-to-six-hour trip ended up taking three days to finish. There were no life jackets for us and we had to go through the high sea without them. After just two hours on board, the engine of the boat was broken and the strong, high waves of the sea became our only guide, swinging us from left to right, up and down. You should have been there to hear all the kinds of prayers and various ways to call God. Before we went on board, I gathered many of the light white trays used to serve food in some restaurants, shaped them, and put some on my back and some on my stomach before putting on my T-shirt. Just when we thought everything had died down, another strong and high wave started moving towards our direction. From the look of it, we could see the danger that was coming our way. This time around the prayers were very loud. The wave then hit our boat with great intensity and the boat went up flying like a plane. No matter how high a boat flies in the air, it can never be turned into a plane. I can’t really explain what happened, because the boat capsized. We were left in a “swim or sink” situation. I really thank my stars for what I wore inside my T-shirt, as it actually helped me to hang on. At the end of this fiasco, the boat population had been reduced by four persons. Three adults and one child.
God was kind, we floated to a creek. The most holy journey I have had—everyone on board, even the hypocrites and pagans, were singing “Hallelujah” songs and praying all kinds of prayers. The first phase of the journey was completed.
Walking Through the Darién Gap
The day in my life I will never forget. I was in the middle of nowhere in the Darién gap surrounded by beautiful trees with green leaves of various sizes and heights. This is a world where dead people talk. In the middle of the Darién Gap, it is impossible for you to see more than 15 meters ahead, as it is made up of trees that have been juxtaposed and arranged in a zigzag manner. It’s so easy for the slow ones to get lost.
After trekking for four days plus climbing and descending hills and valleys, my legs were weak, I had muscle cramps, and blisters. The soil was slippery, I had fallen several times. My ash-color joggings [pants] were now turned to brown. I had spots of brown mud on some parts of my body including my face. The bites didn’t only come from bugs, they came also from mosquitoes, from ants, from centipedes.
The group I was walking with was made up of people from several countries. We had Indians, Nepalese, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Cubans, and Cameroonians. There was no way to communicate with guides because of the language barrier. They spoke in Spanish and we in English, some in French. We didn’t know if they had names, so we called them “amigo” and they called us “amigo” as well. In the jungle there was no Internet we could use to Google translate what they were saying. What I remember hearing them say was “vamanos,” “silencio,” “tranquilo,” and “rápido.”
The group that went before us were attacked by bandits who stripped them and went away with their money and phones. Remember, the Darién Gap is a lawless, roadless wilderness where Colombian rebels roam freely, and it’s also used as a pathway to transport drugs. The worst experience I had in the forest was around the fourth day. We had climbed a very steep hill, and in our descent we rejoined the river that runs throughout the journey. I was so anxious to quench my thirst that I immediately started drinking, when someone shouted, “Giscard, watch out!” Oh my God, lying just about 10 feet from where I was drinking was the corpse of a black man in his 30s, already half-decayed. When I saw that I spat.
Every time we heard the sound of a helicopter over us we would lie down flat and try to camouflage from the search team. The hide and seek finally paid off and we succeeded in going through the forest.
Another such journey for our group was to go across Nicaragua, because it was the same scenario as in the Panama forest. This is how we moved, and now here I am in the United States.
It is ironic, the world knows the United States to be the defender of liberty and human rights. Most people know that is not true.
When I first entered the United States, I was given a hamburger with particles of rocks placed in the middle. From the first bite, I realized where I was and what awaited me. I was stripped for a search and that was the last day I saw my property. Then the first time in my life to have been handcuffed, an experience that I will for ever remain in my mind. I was then taken to a room to be interviewed, where this question was asked: “Are you afraid to go back to your country?” I was then moved to another facility in Louisiana where another interview called the Credible Fear Interview was conducted. This question still appears: “Are you scared to go back to your country?” Talking about credible fear, just the journey I made through the Panama/Colombia jungle is a credible enough demonstration of fear, without even talking about what happened to me in my home country. The interviewer found me credible.
From this stage, I had to go to court to see a judge. As usual, there was no level playing field. The court I was taken to is inhuman. We were chained and handcuffed like slaves. No different from what our ancestors endured during the slave trade. Even in front of the judge, I did my entire court session in chains. We all know that at that moment one is psychologically defeated. As if that was not enough, the question “Are you scared to go back to your country?” still popped up. To tell the truth, yes I am scared to go back to my country, and from what I have witnessed here, I am scared to live here as well.
Justice delayed is justice denied. My judge, who was suppose to act like a referee between me and the ICE prosecutor, turned out to do the work of the ICE prosecutor. She took center stage and did three fourths of the questioning. She asked me more than 200 questions, only trying so hard to make me fail. At the end of the hearing she told us that she will not make a decision right away. On my individual hearing, I was handcuffed and chained for more than 12 hours, an experience that will forever remain in my memory. The time the immigration judge took to finally make a decision on my case was five weeks, which were like five years for me because they were very painful moments. I was visiting the phones at least five times a day to know my status. All the time the phone kept telling me, “Your case is currently pending.” There is no day I will not hear the recorded messages in our detention phone system. “Press one for English. Para Español marque dos.” I kept checking all the time, and on November 28, 2018, it changed from “Your case is currently pending” to “The immigration judge ordered your removal in your case.” I asked some older inmates what it meant, and they told me it means you are being deported. All kind of negative ideas ran through my mind. I thought of committing suicide. In an attempt to drive those negative thoughts away, I decided to go play soccer. That was another big mistake, because it was the first time I got into a fight while playing soccer in detention. I got mad over a tackle from my opponent. I ended the game, went back to the dorm, and tried to sleep. No way could I sleep and I lost appetite. All these feelings just as a result of picturing what’s gonna happen to me if I got to go back….
The moment I applied at the Board of Immigration Appeals, I was moved to another facility in Alabama: Etowah. There I meet people who had lost their cases and were appealing as well. Most of them were handling their cases pro se and were transformed into inmate lawyers. Those who did not have lawyers, we put our heads together to find a solution on their behalf. We gathered ideas from the paperwork of those who had lawyers and who had similar cases.
Here is the thing, I always like to compare what we are facing here as refugees to what happened during slavery and the slave trade. I will begin with the separation of families. During the slave trade, there was separation of families. Life as a refugee, families are separated. Life as a refugee, like during slavery, there is a high level of uncertainty. No hope of freedom in the near future, for there is no defined detention period. During slavery the masters were making huge sums of money from the buying and selling of slaves. Now the supposed masters and owners of private detentions are making colossal amounts of money from the keeping of us detainees. The way we are being transported, too, is no different. We are chained and handcuffed every time we need to be transferred.
So far I have been to five detentions: Rio Grande in Texas; Pine Prairie, Louisiana; Etowah County Jail, Alabama; Jena, Louisiana; and LaSalle Correctional Center still in Louisiana. The reason they keep moving people from one place to another cannot be accounted for. Sometimes they move you to a facility where you spend just a day and the next day move you to another. The reason I can give for this is that they want to boost the affairs of the detentions they move us to. Remember, these private prisons are paid handsomely for housing and keeping us. Some say $130 per day per detainee. Some of these facilities that I have been to, if I estimate how much is being spent per day from the huge sums collected to spend on us, you will be shocked to realize the kind of profit they make. Some jails are now used for immigration purposes because of the kind of money involved. Some facilities have no yards, we don’t get to go out to feel the sun just because they were not meant for housing immigrants. No classification of inmates, the hygiene conditions low. People in prison are better off than us.
They sent me to one of the worst states when it comes to immigration, where they do not respect federal immigration laws. An example of this is in the 2009 parole directive [ICE Directive 11002.1, Parole to Arriving Aliens found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture]. That law does not apply here in Louisiana.…
I have seen people suffering in detention—most recently, some Indians in my dorm at Jena who went on hunger strike because they had lost hope and were fed up with what is happening to them. These guys went without food for 45 days when I was leaving Jena. One of them had grown crankier and skinnier. All you could see of him was his eyeballs that seemed to increase in size. He was on a stretcher. The moment I saw him, I thought he was dead, but he raised his hands and waved at me. I said to myself, if I can’t help, then nobody will.
This place, call it detention or prison, whatever you want to call it, is not a good place to be. Why make me do this time? I have done close to two years now in custody…. We are all the same and I am a human being, for crying out loud. One made in the image of God. I still believe that I have not done anything wrong to be put in prison for this length of time….
What I think awaits me now is nothing but death if something is not done to get me out of this place in a not too distant future. I’m saying so because the moment that invisible enemy Covid-19 gets to this place, that will be the end of our stories. I’m tired of all this and I need my freedom back.
What would I like to say to the American people? Parents know how to give good gifts to their children. So a child cannot ask for bread from the father and get a stone from him instead. Therefore, America, considered the father of all nations, number one in the world, why do you give us stones when all we are asking for is bread?
It has been a pleasure knowing you and working with you. Thanks again, and I wish you well.
With much respect,