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asylum protest

Protesters hold a banner reading "SEEKING ASYLUM IS NOT A CRIME" during an April 22, 2021 demonstration outside the Staten Island Ferry in New York. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

'It Was Torture': African Asylum-Seekers Describe Restraint Agony on ICE 'Death Flights'

"In Cameroon, I had been beaten with a machete until my feet swelled and bled... But the day I was put in the WRAP by ICE, I wanted to die. I have never felt such horrible pain."

Brett Wilkins

With images of U.S. Border Patrol agents using horses and whip-like reins to round up Haitian asylum-seekers fresh in their minds, Black immigrants' rights advocates this week filed a human and civil rights complaint condemning what they called the torture of African deportees last year by Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel.

"I truly felt I was meeting my death in that moment... When I complained, they just pulled the WRAP tighter."

The complaint—addressed to Katherine Culliton-González, head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties—was filed by groups including African Communities Together, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Cameroon Advocacy Network, Haitian Bridge Alliance, and UndocuBlack Network, and was timed to coincide with the National Week of Action in Support of Black Migrants.

The document alleges ICE's use of a "human restraint" device known as the WRAP during the mass deportation of African asylum-seekers to war-torn Cameroon last October and November "violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture, constitutional due process, and ICE's own detention standards on the use of restraints and the use of force," as well as federal civil rights laws and state criminal and tort statutes.

"In Cameroon, I had been beaten with a machete until my feet swelled and bled, and I was struck again and again with a metal belt buckle," a complainant named Ray said in the document. "But the day I was put in the WRAP by ICE, I wanted to die. I have never felt such horrible pain. It was torture."

"Sam," a Ugandan complainant who did not wish to disclose his real name, said ICE agents knocked him to the ground while one of them knelt on his neck "like George Floyd" before he was "wrapped into a bag and tied like a chicken that is going to be slaughtered."

As Common Dreams reported, civil rights attorneys earlier this year accused DHS of "crimes against humanity" before and during the so-called "death flights," in which Cameroonians and other Africans were deported to a nation where a four-year civil war has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 700,000 others.

On Wednesday, the Atlanta-based advocacy group Project South, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against ICE, DHS, and other federal agencies demanding information about the "death flights."

One of the Cameroonians named in the complaint to Culliton-González, an asthmatic man named Godswill, was held at the notorious Jackson Parish, Louisiana ICE detention center, where he said that "the darker your skin, the harsher the treatment." 

Godswill was subsequently transferred to Prairieland Detention Center in Texas, where—after allegedly being coerced into signing his own deportation papers—he and other deportees were bussed to an airport and shackled in five-point restraints before being forced into the WRAP.

"They dragged me across the tarmac, they climbed on me, and they stuffed me into a kind of bag," he said in the complaint. "I later learned it is called the WRAP."

Charles Hammond, CEO of WRAP manufacturer Safe Restraints, told The Grio that the device was designed as an alternative to hog-tying and to "improve the preservation of life" by reducing deaths caused by positional asphyxia. However, Godswill and others upon whom it was used describe the WRAP as a torture device.

According to Godswill in the complaint:

They closed it around my legs with buckles and pulled the straps so tight, compressing my legs, already in five-point restraints, so tight I couldn't move. Then they threw the upper-body piece over my head and around my arms and closed it at the back. They pushed my upper body down over my cuffed hands, and they pressed on my back to the point where my head was almost touching my knees. The whole time they were yelling at me. Then they attached a strap from my chest to my feet, and left me folded up like a mat.

There was so much pain in my waist and in my back. My lungs were compressed, I couldn't breathe. I couldn't sit up. I was immobilized. My body was in so much stress. I shouted, "You're killing me!" I truly felt I was meeting my death in that moment. Six officers, three on each side, picked me up and carried me onto the plane. They plopped me down, like a load of wood, across a center row of seats. They left me like that for several hours—more than three, maybe four.

"My back was killing me," he said. "I couldn't breathe. Someone, I think maybe a doctor, came to check on me. I begged him to take me out of the WRAP but he only reached into my pocket to get my inhaler. He put it to my mouth so I could take a life-saving pull. Then he tossed it onto the seat and walked away."

"I heard others shouting, 'You're killing him! What are you doing to him?' But the officers did nothing," he added. "I was no cause for concern to them. When I complained, they just pulled the WRAP tighter."

Although the alleged abuses in the complaint occurred during the tenure of former President Donald Trump, Fatma Marouf, a professor at Texas A&M University School of Law and the complaint's primary sponsor, told The Grio that the WRAP is indicative of a "culture of excessive force and impunity" at ICE that transcends administrations.

"These are asylum-seekers who are exercising their legal right to try and be in this country."

"Regardless of who's president," Marouf asserted, "the rank-and-file agents have grown accustomed to behaving in a certain way."

Marouf stressed that "these are asylum-seekers who are exercising their legal right to try and be in this country" and should be "treated with respect and dignity," not "like animals."

Referring to the images of Haitians being chased by Border Patrol agents, SPLC senior attorney Luz Lopez said in a statement that "especially after the events of the last month, there is no doubt that Black immigrants are disproportionately subject to harm and abuse by our immigration system."

"This is why it is more important now than ever that the abuses these Black immigrants suffered, as a result of these deportations, are not simply swept under the rug," she added. "There must be transparency and the truth must come out in order to prevent future similar abuses."

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