At two in the morning on January 29, 2021, officers at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility rousted three Cameroonian men from their beds, shackled them and put them on a plane to Alexandria, Louisiana, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates a staging area for international deportations. One of the Cameroonians, Thomas (not his real name), repeatedly asked to be allowed to call his pro bono attorney, Denver lawyer Henry Hollithron. The officers refused, but promised they would contact the attorney themselves.
They never did.
All three of the Cameroonian detainees had come to America over the past several years seeking asylum. All three had had their asylum claims denied by immigration judges in a closed court at the Aurora detention center. Such denials were not unusual; year after year, immigration judges deny the majority of asylum claims that come before them. According to the nonprofit TRAC immigration data tracking service at Syracuse University, last year the judges hearing asylum claims in the Aurora court had denial rates ranging from just under 40 percent to 100 percent.
All three of the men had appealed their denials, and their appeals were pending. Even with that, however, they were vulnerable to deportation because their denials were considered final orders of removal — something only success on appeal, or an appellate stay of removal, could change.
When day dawned on January 29, advocate Rachna Bocsi, who volunteers with Casa de Paz, a local immigrant support organization, and regularly communicated with the Cameroonian detainees at the ICE facility, made one of her periodic check-ins — and discovered that they weren’t there. She called a Cameroonian friend of one of the detainees, who managed to glean through the immigrant grapevine that the men had been moved to the ICE deportation location in Louisiana. Their presence there was later confirmed by a California activist who funded a phone account at the facility so that inmates could call him.
Soon the attorneys for all three men were informed of their whereabouts. Hollithron and the attorney for one of the other men were both working pro bono under the auspices of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, which operates a legal advocacy program for ICE detainees in Aurora. As numerous rumors and a few verifiable facts poured in from around the country to attorneys and advocates, a consensus began to emerge: The men would be flown back to Cameroon on February 2 or 3, on a “death flight.”
During the run-up to the recent presidential election, ICE put into action what appeared to be a methodical plan to empty detention facilities of asylum seekers and other detainees from Africa. In mid-October, using its contract airline Omni Air International, ICE returned over a hundred African detainees, most to Cameroon or the Democratic Republic of Congo. It sent out a second flight carrying what were believed to be at least fifty Africans, including Cameroonians, on Veterans Day. And in the new year, less than a week before Inauguration Day, it dispatched a third planeload estimated to contain over fifty Somalians, Ethiopians and Kenyans.
Detainees and advocates alike took to calling the deportations “death flights” because of the likelihood that African governments would subject the returnees to lethal punishment for having left and sought asylum. In 2020, Bocsi had befriended a Cameroonian detainee at the Aurora facility who’d been denied asylum and was subsequently deported by ICE on one of those flights. Upon his arrival in Cameroon, he was immediately arrested, jailed, beaten, tortured and charged with “hostility to the fatherland” — the equivalent of treason, and punishable by life in prison or death, she says. Afraid for his life, he was forced to go into hiding before he could be tried and sentenced; his family managed to negotiate and bribe his way out of captivity.
But there are widespread reports of other death-flight deportees being jailed, tortured and/or “disappeared.”
It is impossible to know why, exactly, the three Aurora ICE detainees rousted from their sleep and sent to the Louisiana ICE staging facility on January 29 had avoided the death flights of October, November and January. It could have been the luck of the draw. At least one of the men, though, had been so terrified of being returned to Cameroon that, following a widely publicized November report that ICE was physically coercing Cameroonian detainees in other ICE facilities to give signatures or thumbprints on documents that would facilitate their deportation, he’d refused ICE orders to sign what he believed to be such documents. Although that refusal led ICE to order him detained indefinitely, he told his attorney he’d rather die in ICE custody in America than be beaten, tortured and executed in Cameroon, all of which he believed probable if he were to be sent back.
Outrage over ICE’s aggressive deportation policies during the administration of President Donald Trump, and the first death flight, had led then-presidential candidate Joe Biden to promise that, if elected, he would impose a 100-day pause on ICE deportations. He quickly made good on that promise: On January 20, Inauguration Day, Biden’s acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, under which ICE falls, ordered a 100-day administrative freeze on deportations of most non-citizens with final removal orders. To qualify, they had to meet two conditions: They’d been in the United States since before November 1, 2020, and didn’t pose a national security risk.
In the same pause order, DHS promised that each potential deportee would get an “individualized review.”
At that, Thomas breathed a sigh of relief — too soon, it turned out.
Nine days after the issuance of the January 20 deportation pause, the three Cameroonians at the Aurora center, along with an unknown number of other Africans from ICE detention facilities around the country, were spirited to the Louisiana staging area for removal.
Given the pause order, how was that possible?
On January 26, a Trump-appointed federal district court judge in Texas had enjoined the pause from taking effect. The Texas court’s temporary restraining order, originally effective until February 9 and then extended two more weeks, was a green light to ICE for a death flight in early February.
The Texas attorney general who brought the Texas suit resulting in the restraining order was Ken Paxton, a Trump ally — the same Ken Paxton who, in December, had filed a lawsuit asking the U.S. Supreme Court to exercise original jurisdiction to invalidate Biden’s electoral victory in several swing states. That lawsuit was immediately tossed.
In challenging the DHS deportation moratorium, Paxton told the Texas judge that the state had an agreement with DHS, never before disclosed, in which DHS said that it wouldn’t impose any deportation moratorium without giving Texas 180 days’ advance notice. The agreement had been executed on January 8 by, among others, Paxton, acting for Texas, and Ken Cuccinelli, long Trump’s designated “acting” DHS secretary.
But the U.S. Government Accountability Office and several federal courts had already held that, because he’d never received Senate confirmation, Cuccinelli could not legally act for DHS. And on February 2, Biden’s acting DHS secretary wrote Paxton that the agreement between Cuccinelli and Texas was void and unenforceable.
By then, however, the passengers for the next death flight were already in Louisiana.
Cameroon, located in central-west Africa, is the product of a 1961 United Nations-supervised merger of what were formerly two geographically separate “Camerouns” — one English-speaking and British-controlled, the other French-speaking and French-controlled. The population of the French-speaking (Francophone) component was larger and came to dominate the merged territories’ government. By the time Thomas — then in his late thirties, single, with an established trade — fled in 2017, almost sixty years after the country’s formation, the Francophone majority had systematically marginalized the English-speaking (Anglophone) minority: economically, politically and culturally. Some Anglophones had taken up arms for the cause of independence; others campaigned for independence peacefully. Thomas, an Anglophone supporter, was among the latter. The government, however, treated both peaceful and non-peaceful opponents as enemies of the state, ruthlessly suppressing nonviolent dissent right along with armed resistance.
In October 2017, Thomas had joined with others in the Southern Cameroons National Council, the nonviolent separatist group to which he belonged, on its annual march for independence. When he’d done so previously, he’d suffered detention and beatings at the hands of the military and the police. This time was a little different: Members of an elite and violent government security force, clad in black face masks, attacked the marchers.
Thomas and others were taken to a military base, which he came to believe was a death camp. There his captors beat him and asked him to name other members of the group. They poured molten plastic over his feet. They yanked out the toenails of both pinkie toes. They dislocated his fingers. They sliced his hands with a knife. He finally told them that — partly because the group’s members feared this kind of interrogation — they called each other only by first names, preceded by “Brother.”
One night, with the aid of a sympathetic guard whom Thomas surmised might be an Anglophone sympathizer, he escaped, returned home for his savings and a few belongings, and fled. Two weeks later, he crossed from Cameroon into Nigeria, beginning an eighteen-month journey to America that would take him through several countries in Africa to Spain, from Spain to Ecuador, then overland north through South and Central America and Mexico.
He reached the U.S. border in June 2019. The previous year, claiming to be understaffed, the border patrol had stepped up a tactic it called “metering.” Under this practice, asylum seekers like Thomas — who came openly to a port of entry and asked for asylum rather than sneaking over the border illegally — were given numbers, then told to check back daily to see if their numbers were called, at which time they might be allowed to make an asylum claim. At this port of entry, thousands of would-be asylum seekers like Thomas queued daily. At night, they fended for themselves in Tijuana, where attacks on immigrants were common. Thomas’s passport was stolen.
His “metered” number wasn’t called until September 15, more than three months after he’d arrived.
In July 2019, as Thomas was queuing up each day, DHS and Trump’s Department of Justice implemented a new rule that required non-Mexican asylum seekers arriving at the border to prove, as a condition for applying for U.S. asylum, that they’d previously applied for and been denied asylum in a country through which they’d passed. Although Thomas had reached the border and been “metered in” before this third-country asylum rule took effect, the border patrol’s position was that he’d not truly “arrived” until his metered number was called. And then, since he hadn’t applied for asylum in any country he’d passed through on his eighteen-month journey from Cameroon — and wouldn’t have, since in none was he welcomed and in most he was jailed, assaulted, robbed or defrauded — the border patrol did not allow him to request asylum, citing the new rule.
But because Thomas had told border agents that he feared for his life if he were returned to Cameroon, and because U.S. law prohibits summary deportations of asylum seekers who at the border express fear of being tortured or killed by the government they left behind, he was allowed into the country to try to qualify for remaining provisionally without a grant of asylum. So in mid-September, the border patrol turned Thomas over to ICE, which in turn moved him to the Aurora detention facility, which GEO Group, a private prison company, runs for ICE.
There, in the spring of 2020, Thomas finally had a trial before an immigration judge, where he could try to prove he was entitled to asylum. His break came because of a recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that effectively exempted asylum seekers like Thomas from the third-country asylum rule if they’d reached a port of entry before the rule took effect — even if, because of “metering,” they had not been allowed to make their asylum requests immediately.
At trial, Thomas made his case for asylum and, alternately, for being allowed to stay in the country provisionally to avoid torture, serious harm or death if he was forced to return home. The immigration court judge found Thomas generally credible, but denied both asylum and any form of provisional relief from immediate removal.
Thomas’s pro bono attorney appealed, and Thomas remained in the custody of ICE in Aurora. Because of injuries sustained during beatings and torture in Cameroon, he couldn’t exercise; his vision, impaired from when he was kept in darkness for weeks during one of his detentions, didn’t allow him to read his Bible for more than an hour at a time without getting a headache.
In October 2020, Thomas’s initial appeal was rejected. His attorney appealed the rejection.
By the evening of Friday, January 29, the people following the stealth removal of Aurora’s three Cameroonian asylum seekers had started taking action. The attorneys readied appellate court motions for emergency stays, hoping for a judicial response by the end of the weekend. Meanwhile, the men’s local supporters, including Bocsi and others affiliated with Casa de Paz, activated their networks of friends and sympathizers, broadcasting a synopsis of the men’s plight along with suggested scripts to use when contacting members of Congress.
Some reached out to the media. Discussions began about funding family members or friends of the three men in Cameroon, so that if the deportations occurred, there would be a war chest available with which to bribe the men out of government custody before they could be killed.
By February 1, the federal appeals court in Colorado had acted, and in brief orders granted all three men an emergency stay from deportation. Their lawyers immediately served the orders on ICE, both in Aurora and Louisiana.
In the meantime, though, Cameroon’s government office of external affairs had announced that it expected an Omni Air International jet from the United States to arrive in the city of Douala, carrying sixty Cameroonians for “repatriation,” on February 4 — a schedule consistent with a liftoff from Louisiana the afternoon of February 3.
By February 2, two of the Cameroonians had been able to communicate to their attorneys that they’d received papers from ICE confirming their stays, and that they would not be put aboard the Africa death flight. ICE officials at the Aurora detention center confirmed that the third, though not in receipt of such a paper, was not on the flight manifest.
On the afternoon of February 3, as the plane sat on the runway in Louisiana, activists gathered at the airport to bear witness. At two o’clock, Bocsi sent out word that sources there had told her the Africa death flight was grounded. This proved true, though at the time no one could ascertain whether this meant it was canceled or merely delayed; ICE was not saying. Nor was ICE revealing the exact whereabouts of the three Cameroonians taken from the Aurora facility. But on February 4, an ICE officer in Aurora advised the men’s attorneys that they would probably be returned to Colorado. It could take a week or longer, and in the interim they might be transferred temporarily to an ICE facility in Arizona.
That afternoon, ICE issued a statement that said, in part, “ICE has decided to cancel Feb. 3 flight to allow any potential victims or witnesses an opportunity to be interviewed, and will conduct an agency review of recent use-of-force reports related to individuals on this flight, and issue any additional guidance or training as deemed necessary.”
This cryptic announcement has been ICE’s only official comment on the flight.
On February 10, ICE returned Thomas and one of the other men who’d been shipped to Louisiana to the Aurora detention facility. The third Cameroonian was sent to a facility in Arizona.
At 10 a.m. on February 12, two weeks after Thomas had been taken away in the middle of the night, his attorney was notified by ICE that Thomas would be released from detention at noon that day. The attorney for the other Cameroonian received a similar notification. No explanations were given.
"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement continues to make custody determinations on a case by case basis, in accordance with U.S. law and Department of Homeland Security policy. During the course of routine operations, individuals can be released from custody based on the facts and circumstances of their cases," says Alethea Smock, public affairs officer for ICE in the region.
Word immediately spread to supporters of the two men. A Casa de Paz van was dispatched to welcome them as they walked out, free. Their first American meal not served in detention was in that van: fast-food hamburgers and Starbucks drinks.
Thomas was connected with his local volunteer sponsor, at whose house he slept that night. The next day, another volunteer took him shopping for clothes.
The order granting Thomas’s release requires him to check in regularly with ICE. It also states that if requested by ICE, he must assist in obtaining necessary travel documents. This order will come into play if ICE seeks to deport him again, which is not out of the question. Thomas and the other two Cameroonians still have pending asylum appeals, which could be denied. Beyond that, the emergency stays granted by the court could be revoked; the government is actively opposing the stay in Thomas’s case.
Sometimes all’s well that ends well, and sometimes it only seems that way. Even if the season of ICE death flights has passed, these men can take nothing for granted. But for now, at least, Thomas can taste freedom.
Jeff Pearson is a retired Denver lawyer who has done pro bono detainee asylum representation for RMIAN.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.