In the Mankon language, spoken in northwest Cameroon, mughu is a word for hell. Northwest Cameroon was home to more than a dozen of the 48 African asylum seekers now confined in Louisiana at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, where COVID-19 has taken a firm grip. Along with men from Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, and Burkino Faso, the Cameroonians find themselves in a mughu of indefinite detention where their applications for parole are denied—unreasonably, their advocates say—or simply go unanswered.
Sylvie Bello, founder of the Cameroon American Council in Washington, D.C., says over 30 Africans at the Pine Prairie facility are participating in a hunger strike to get everybody out safely, especially two who are especially sick.
Leonard Ataubo is a 23-year-old man recovering from hemorrhoid surgery, whose profuse vomiting and bleeding have left him in a severely weakened condition. Nathania Funa suffers from asthma, and has back pain so severe he can't sleep through the night, has lost his appetite, and must wear a back brace to stay mobile.
Bryan D. Cox, public affairs director of ICE's Southeastern Region said in an August 17 email that only one person in the Pine Prairie facility is in "hunger strike status" and that that inmate isn't from Africa. "Claims regarding an extended hunger strike by a group of detainees at the facility are not accurate," he wrote.
But advocates say Cox is using a technicality to side step questions. They say the hunger strikers started August 10 but paused their protest as a show of good faith to ICE officials who expressed a willingness to negotiate. That negotiation failed, according to Rose Murray, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Louisiana. Murray is representing some of the hunger strikers. The strikers resumed their hunger strike on August 21. Murray says the strikers never considered themselves as having abandoned the strike, but were in "hold off" mode in order to advance the negotiation.
Protesters supported by New Orleans Workers Group march in support of African asylum seekers—many of them from Cameroon—who've been conducting hunger strike at the Pine Prairie ICE Procession Center in Evangeline Parish. (Photo by Jason Kerzinski)
"I am worried about the strikers," Murray said. "One of my clients has a bad case of Hepatitis B, and there are other hunger strikers with serious medical conditions."
Ataubo has been held at Pine Prairie for almost two years, and Bello said he has been denied parole three times even though he has a community of family, friends and fellow Presbyterians in Washington, D.C., ready to receive him and vouch that he's not a flight risk. He has told Bello that he has lost more than 20 pounds in the past two weeks, and his fellow asylum seekers have told Bello they fear Ataubo is dying.
From Cameroon to America
Funa's sister, Martha Nfoneh, has been waiting to welcome him to California for more than a year. The brother and sister are the only members of their family still alive. Their parents and three siblings were murdered by military forces who've often targeted civilians.
Nfoneh came to the United States via Tijuana, Mexico in 2016 and is now remarried with two sons, working as a nurse and pursuing her brother's release as his official sponsor. In Cameroon she had a masters degree in international law and aspired to be a diplomat. But she had to leave Cameroon after her family members were killed and she was raped (in front of her daughter who remains in Cameroon) and beaten in the face so viciously that she suffered permanent tooth loss and must wear a partial denture. The judge found her story credible and granted her asylum because of the persecution she'd faced.
Martha Nfoneh and her brother Nathania Funa at their home in Cameroon, 2010. Nfoneh and Funa lost their parents and their other siblings to murder at the hands of military forces. (Photo provided by Martha Nfoneh)
Funa fled Cameroon the same time his sister did. She said her brother found a good job as a technician at Coca Cola in South Africa but had to run for his life after he was mercilessly beaten by residents there hostile to foreigners. He left South Africa for Ecuador and walked through Columbia, the treacherous Darien Gap, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. He waited four months in Tijuana trying to get into the U.S. and was sent first to an ICE detention facility in Arizona, then one in Mississippi and finally the facility in Pine Prairie.
He's languished there a year.
"I submitted all the papers—proof of my house payments, a copy of my green card, letters from my church members—only to be denied," Nfoneh said. "They said he was a 'flight risk.' Eventually I realized they were giving parole just to Cubans and Europeans, but not giving parole to Africans — and most especially not to Cameroonians. The court just sees a Cameroonian and says they are 'not credible.'"
When the new coronavirus became a pandemic, Nfoneh filed for humanitarian parole, citing Funa's asthma and a history of tuberculosis that puts him at extra risk for COVID-19.
"They dismissed it," she said.
Advocates seek investigation into treatment of Black asylum seekers
According to a 2018 ICE report the average stay in Pine Prairie is 45 days, but according to Bello, the founder of the Cameroon American Council, many of the African men in Pine Prairie have been held there a year or more. Bello wants Congress to investigate the treatment of Black asylum seekers and Black immigrants.
"Eighty percent of the (African) men incarcerated in Pine Prairie have family members in the U.S. who are 'essential workers,'" Bello said, adding that many, like Nfoneh, are nurses, "healthcare being the number one job for Cameroonians" in America. "It's unfair that their family members are at risk for COVID-19 in detention, while they go to work every single day to protect everyone from COVID-19."
Pine Prairie is in Rep. Mike Johnson's congressional district, but Bello said she wants U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond to take this issue up in a serious way in his capacity as a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and his roles as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and a national co-chairman of the Joe Biden for President Campaign.
"The silence of our friends is the problem. Cedric Richmond has the wherewithal to push immigration as part of a Black agenda," Bello said. "Biden's eight priorities for Black America that came out in May, none of it said immigration. If Biden can erase Black immigration, even while naming a running mate (Sen. Kamala Harris) with a Black immigrant heritage, why don't we expect that ICE feels it can do it too?"
Richmond's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Murray says based on interviews with eyewitnesses and victims, SPLC believes that ICE and its contractor GEO Group are violating her clients' basic rights to peacefully protest.
"They've responded with unlawful force, have improperly interfered with protected speech and continue to do so," Murray said. "The Africans are being indefinitely detained by ICE, with no end in sight."
"I am not feeling well. I'm feeling very sick, I've not eaten solid food for six weeks, I've been outside of the general population for that time, I have chest pain, I have abdominal pain, I…"
Murray said that applications for the release of Cameroonians are denied at a rate 2.5 times higher than other applicants and that when the men conducted an earlier hunger strike in March, they were all put in solitary confinement.
"ICE and GEO are threatening to do so again," Murray said.
On Friday, August 14, about 70 members of the New Orleans Workers Group, "a socialist organization of revolutionary workers fighting back against oppression and exploitation in New Orleans," caravanned to the site in a show of solidarity and to demand that ICE "free them all."
They were not allowed on the property and were sprayed with pepper spray multiple times by local law enforcement officials.
A reporter spoke with Ataubo on a call with Sylvie Bello the next day for a few moments. He said that the day of the protest, guards didn't bring his medication until after 9 p.m., hours after he was supposed to have received it.
"I am not feeling well," he said. "I'm feeling very sick, I've not eaten solid food for six weeks, I've been outside of the general population for that time, I have chest pain, I have abdominal pain, I…"
The phone cut off.
Bello finished his sentence for him, "Leonard is bleeding. He's only 23. He's a baby with his life ahead of him, a new life that is waiting for him. I am begging the people of Louisiana to please help him."