|“Immigration blues” by Patrick Marioné © Creative Commons|
An extended interview with Boris, a refugee recently held inside a private ICE facility in New Mexico
In late November 2017, the CJ Project’s Sarah Macaraeg spoke at length with Boris, a recent detainee of New Mexico’s Cibola County Correctional Facility, owned and operated by private prison giant CoreCivic. Under a $150 million contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the former Bureau of Prisons facility, approximately 80 miles from Albuquerque, will be an immigrant detention center, until at least 2021.
Using a pseudonym** for his safety, Boris spoke with the CJ Project a few weeks after receiving asylum status, as a refugee fleeing political persecution in Cameroon. While making his case in immigration court, Boris was detained in Cibola for five months. In partnership with New Mexico In Depth, the CJ Project featured a portion of his story in an article highlighting the scarce access to legal resources those detained at the facility, dubbed a “black hole of due process” by the National Immigrant Justice Center, face.
Boris also spoke on a variety of conditions while imprisoned, sharing experience which mirror findings detailed in a new report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). In an audit of five detention centers across the country, the OIG’s office found “problems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment” in four. The OIG’s office did not visit Cibola. But a different, privately-operated ICE detention center in southern New Mexico’s Otero County is among those which the OIG identified serious problems.
For the Spring 2018 session of the New Mexico Legislature, state Representative Antonio Maestas has vowed to put a public hearing on all federal facilities in the state on the agenda, via the Corrections, Courts and Justice committee, following the CJ Project's deep dive on Cibola with the Center for Investigative Reporting. The Legislative session calendar is not yet posted, but can be tracked here. Maestas said he expects the date of the hearing, on federal prisons in New Mexico, to be finalized in March 2018 and take place in April or May 2018.
Meanwhile, egregious human rights abuses on the other side of the globe—in Libya, Myanmar, Cameroon—have struggled to garner attention stateside. The thread connecting both issues: The stories of those countries’ refugees who’ve faced immigrant detention in the U.S.
Here, the CJ Project offers excerpts of Macaraeg’s interview with Boris, featuring his thoughts on race and human rights and his hopes for the future. His words have been edited for clarity and length.
What it cost me to leave my country in such an unprepared mode, was simply to the fact that I had to make my voice heard, amongst the people. As an Anglophone Cameroonian, I wouldn’t watch the head of state kill all of us before we could say 'no' to it.
Coming to the U.S. was due to the understanding that the U.S. protects and preserves the rights of people, to the first order. The impression I had in mind was not to be locked up in a prison. Being locked up there retraumatized to me to what I had faced in my country.
A refugee should be kept in a refugee camp, not a prison. Being in prison, denying me the same privileges they deny criminals, was really a traumatizing issue.
A person who would use ‘criminal’ to describe someone seeking asylum might not know why that person is seeking asylum. Being detained there is not a law court and the officers are not judges. A criminal is not one until proven by a competent court of law.
They give you the room to stand before the judge, but most often, because of a lack of expression, a lot of people who might have serious cases, but do not really know how to express themselves—which means they need the attention of a lawyer but most often do not have this access—they end up being the losers.
If they could open more room for the volunteer lawyers, I think that would go a long way to help some people. Some people might have money to pay, but they may not have anyone to pay. They might be gripped with fear and tension before a judge. They missed the whole thing they need to say. With the assistance of a lawyer, things might go the other way.
Conditions at Cibola
Days go by without even seeing the sun, and inside there, it’s really cold. We go for sometimes days, and if we then manage to sit outside to see the sun, after an hour, we’re taken back. That is a thing that will keep you unstable in your mind.
Besides that, the kind of food they give people: Making sure they have served you is not the same as making sure if you eat. Imagine a situation where you cook someone something and a human can barely eat it—and you don’t care. That’s like assisting the gradual killing of that person. They should see, if they have given you food, if it’s edible. There should be some standard. It’s to the point, there is no way you can force it—even if it means dying there.
Hopes for America
Having come here to America, it’s a new land, I’m still trying to put myself together, as required by American laws for someone like me to have full legal rights and be adapted to the job system and the whole society at large—so I can live a free and fair life. I just hope the best for myself and I wish to have a job.
Being saved, being liberated, being able to walk and interact, here. I very much like the people I happen to have met—very kind and nice people. It’s obvious that America is a good place to be. The fact that I’m welcomed into families that are loving and caring, it’s obvious. I wish to fit myself into it, though I see challenges.
"DAYS GO BY WITHOUT EVEN SEEING THE SUN, AND INSIDE THERE IT’S REALLY COLD. WE GO FOR SOMETIMES DAYS, AND IF WE THEN MANAGE TO SIT OUTSIDE TO SEE THE SUN, AFTER AN HOUR, WE’RE TAKEN BACK. THAT IS A THING THAT WILL KEEP YOU UNSTABLE IN YOUR MIND."
The racism: It’s not good. Humanity is not by color. Humanity is the fact that you are human. The blood that flows in someone who thinks they are white is the same blood that flows in another person who is black. I don’t see to what extent some people think they are superior to others. It helps being together, rather than trying to differentiate, like where I come from.
If we can be together to understand ourselves, it’s going to help America become greater and greater, than trying to bring discord and separation. It’s only going to weigh on America and bring it down again.
"The American government should see reason; save lives and save humanity."
This country was one built by Africans. My folk. Some died here. Some are still here. They prepared the America today as we see it and are able to admire it. So we shouldn’t bring issues that will bring it down again. We should just try to be in unity and love to help the country go more and more.
America just needs to do readjustment. America is a country, despite its ups and downs that can readjust. It is but very normal. We need to become people like that, who can see a wrong and say this is a wrong. We need to be people who decide the kind of government we want for ourselves.
A lot of letters have been written by a consortium of organizations that represent Cameroon civil society, who are crying out for something. Letters have been written to the United Nations and we’ve done everything to the inform the U.S. government of what actually is taking place. It is a kind of, I should term it genocide. But it is not heard of, in the 21st century, that a government that is supposed to protect the citizens, the rights of citizens instead orders the military to instead stomp and kill them, brutalize them.
From the American side, despite seeing what has been happening in Cameroon since the beginning, nothing has been done, to my view. And the UN as well. I do not know what they are waiting for. But to my best of knowledge, nothing has been done by them.
They should try to see what is happening in the world, like in Libya where people still live lives like that: Selling others into slavery. Coming to countries like Cameroon, where a single person has ruled a country for 35 years and is killing people—the people he claims to be representing. The American government should see reason; save lives and save humanity.
**Boris’ detention at Cibola was verified with his lawyer. In addition to the fact that his case for asylum was approved by a U.S. judge, the events he described participating in, in Cameroon, were verified as real events via multiple reports from news outlets and Amnesty International. His request for use of a pseudonym is being honored in this report.