What you need to know:
- Immigrant support activists believe the deportees were transferred to commercial planes in Nairobi for transfer to other countries.
- There are mounting concerns that there could be a final deportation flight to Africa as late as Tuesday – the day before Joe Biden takes office.
The Trump administration is continuing to deport African asylum seekers in its last few days before the inauguration of Joe Biden, who has promised a 100-day suspension of deportations, amid allegations of abuse of detainees, insufficient legal protections and inadequate precautions against Covid infection.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) confirmed a “removal flight” left Louisiana on Thursday bound for Nairobi. The charter plane believed to be carrying Somali, Ethiopian and Kenyan deportees made a refuelling stop in Sofia. Immigrant support activists believe the deportees were transferred to commercial planes in Nairobi for transfer to other countries.
There are mounting concerns that there could be a final deportation flight to Africa as late as Tuesday – the day before Biden takes office – as part of a systematic effort by Ice to move as many African asylum seekers as possible out of the country before the end of the zealously anti-immigrant Trump administration.
The last few months of 2020 saw a rise in deportations of African nationals, despite ongoing political and sectarian violence in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries to which deportees were returned.
Some of the deportees had open legal cases while others, according to their lawyers and immigrant advocacy groups, had not been given a fair hearing by immigration judges appointed by the justice department.
There were repeated allegations that detainees were forced, sometimes with beatings, into signing documents waiving their rights to further legal hearings. Many of the Cameroonians deported on earlier flights remain unaccounted for after their return.
Furthermore, Ice deportations have peaked during the coronavirus pandemic, requiring deportees to be packed together at close quarters.
According to the watchdog group Witness at the Border, Thursday’s deportation flight left from an airfield at Alexandria, Louisiana, which has a holding centre run by Ice.
According to one source there were 50 Somalis, two Ethiopians and a Kenyan being held at the Alexandria Ice centre before Thursday’s flight.
Two alongside the plane, chartered from Omni Air International, which has supplied planes for previous Ice deportation flights. Witness at the Border reported that people in chains were seen boarding. The plane flew to the Bulgarian capital overnight, and then on to Kenya, landing in Nairobi just after 8am.
“With each deportation to Africa, Ice and Omni take more steps to hide their flights. This time it was under the cover of night,” Tom Cartwright, who tracks flights for Witness at the Border, said.
“The other steps Ice and Omni have taken to make these flights as opaque as possible is that they now do not file a public flight plan, not even in the US.”
Lawyers and advocacy groups have said there were signs that a final deportation flight to Africa, could be in preparation for the last full day of the Trump presidency, on Tuesday.
However, they said Ice was increasingly careful to disguise its moves ahead of flights to avoid legal efforts to stop them, so it remained uncertainty whether this final flight would go ahead.
Efforts to get details of the fate of the deportees from Kenya’s Interior ministry were fruitless.
According to the Migration Policy Institute as of 2018, there were 11 million unauthorised immigrants living in the United States,
In November 2019, at least 182 undocumented Kenyans living in the US were arrested together with thousands of other immigrants.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said in a press release that the immigrants were seized because they had arrest records prior to applying for legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
DACA is a programme enacted under President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012 to allow immigrants brought in as children in the US, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred deportation.
Immigrants from 78 countries globally were rounded up according to the USCIS report, with Mexico recording the highest number of illegal immigrants arrested at 91,272, while Mali, New Zealand, and Taiwan had the least number at 21.
A total of 118,371 foreigners were arrested, out of whom 464 are of unknown descent.
Africa registered 1,100 DACA applicants incarcerated. Kenya had the second-highest number at 209 incarcerated persons, behind Nigeria.
The annual cost of deporting aliens is estimated to be $303.7 billion (Sh30 trillion).
“The release of this report reflects the agency’s ongoing focus on transparency. The report provides updated information on known arrests and apprehensions of DACA requestors. The data may include arrests that did not result in convictions or where the charges were dropped or otherwise dismissed,” said USCIS.
Outgoing President Trump advanced the fight against illegal immigrants in his tenure, even seeking unsuccessfully to exclude undocumented immigrants from being counted in congressional districts census.
However, the US Supreme Court rejected the attempt to ask respondents if they are US citizens in 2019. The administration was only allowed to collect information on citizenship status by other means.
Once the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the administration issued an order in March 2020 mandating the rapid expulsion of most migrants arriving at US borders without authorisation to enter—without formal removal orders or opportunities to apply for asylum.
A quarter of the immigrants reside in California, followed by Texas, New York and Florida.
Additional reporting by Anita Chepkoech