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Black immigrants report that their lives are under attack in Mississippi after ICE arrests. Some report physical coercion to get them to sign documents agreeing to their own deportation to their native country, where they faced persecution, torture and even death. AP Photo, Chula Vista, Calif., 2012

‘Please, I Can’t Breathe’: The Fight for Black Immigrants’ Lives in Mississippi Prisons

“When they arrived, they pepper-sprayed me in the eyes and strangled me almost to the point of death.” 

“Some of my fingers were broken.”

 “I was crying, ‘I need to talk to my attorney,’ and I said, ‘They are going to kill me.’” 

“They put me on my knees where they were torturing me, and they said they were going to kill me.” 

“Please, I can’t breathe.” 

These harrowing echoes from Mississippi’s darkest days occurred  in late September 2020 in the Adams County Correctional Facility in Natchez—with eight Cameroonian asylum seekers reporting suffering torture at the hands of facility and immigration officials. 

According to a complaint, the officials turned to physical violence and threats in an attempt to coerce the men into signing documents agreeing to their own deportation to their native country, where they faced persecution, torture and even death. In seeking freedom and safety, the men faced some of the very dangers they tried to flee. 

Black immigrants’ lives are under attack—not only in Mississippi, but nationwide. 

Supporters of rights for immigrants say their rights are under fire in many ways, down to forced gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies, for women. Photo courtesy Nitish Meena on Unsplash

 Not Limited to Physical Violence in Detention

Within the months preceding and following the Adams County incident, Cameroonian asylum seekers and advocates reported similar abuses at Louisiana’s Pine Prairie Detention Center, Winn Correctional Center and Jackson Parish Correctional Facility. 

Starting in October 2020, at least 57 immigrant women— primarily Black and Latina—alleged that immigration-detention medical staff in Georgia pressured them into unnecessary gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies. These reports evoke painful images of the infamous “Mississippi appendectomies”—involuntary sterilizations of Black women, including Fannie Lou Hamer, throughout the South during the bulk of the 20th century. 

The harm is not limited to physical violence in detention; Black immigrants also face targeted hostility in the US immigration and criminal justice systems. As a result of racial profiling, over-policing and anti-asylum policies, Black immigrants face a higher likelihood of detention and deportation. 

Professor Karla McKanders notes that this phenomenon “mirrors the over-representation of African Americans in the criminal justice system due to mass incarceration.” 

Deportation: A Powerful Threat to Accountability

As they await resolution of their cases, Black immigrants also languish in immigration detention at far greater rates than other groups, the immigration advocacy group RAICES reports. In 2019, while the average detention time for all immigrants was 55 days, some African immigrants suffered civil detentions for as long as 10 years. 

The same report also notes that Black immigrants received significantly higher bonds than other groups. For example, Haitians included in their study received bonds that were on average 54% percent higher than immigrants from other countries. While detained, Black immigrants are six times more likely to be held in solitary confinement than the at-large population. 

At the same time, the U.S. government acts quickly to deport Black immigrants who speak out against injustices they suffer here. According to reports, the Department of Homeland Security has deported at least six of the eight Cameroonian men who spoke out against abuses at Adams County, at least six of the women who have alleged medical malpractice in detention in Georgia, and at least one Cameroonian hunger striker protesting injustices in the asylum system who had been detained in Louisiana. 

Deportation is a powerful threat to accountability, allowing the government to continue its abuses in secret while disappearing those who speak out—often to places where they fear persecution and death. 

Mississippi activists have long worked to raise the flag about immigrants detained in state prisons, including the private Adams County Correctional Center, a private prison run by CoreCivic near Natchez in southwest Mississippi. Photo courtesy Ashton Pittman

In its 2020 report, The State of Black Immigrants, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the NYU Law Immigrant Rights Clinic observed that “[a]s the number of Black immigrants living in the United States continues to rise, debates around immigration must acknowledge and rectify the injustice inherent in these enforcement and deportation systems.” 

The recent abuses in Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia make that call even more urgent. The federal government must swiftly and fully investigate and remedy these targeted abuses against Black migrants and to implement policies to protect the rights of those who seek freedom in our country. In the words of the indomitable Mississippian Fannie Lou Hamer, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” 

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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