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Diaspora

Week of Hell: Dozens of African Detainees Allege Serial Abuse and Hate Crimes at Notorious Private Immigration Jail

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Late last month, roughly 80 immigrant men from Somalia, Kenya, and Sudan arrived at a remote, for-profit detention center in West Texas to await deportation. In the week that followed, the men were pepper-sprayed, beaten, threatened, taunted with racial slurs, and subjected to sexual abuse. The treatment they endured amounted to multiple violations of federal law and grave human rights abuses — and it all happened over the course of a single week. These are the findings of chilling new report by a collection of Texas-based legal advocacy groups.

The alleged abuse was so grave that advocates for the men have now filed a series of complaints with the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and local authorities calling for investigations into what happened behind the locked doors of the detention facility. According to the advocates, the U.S. attorney’s office has forwarded those complaints, which included alleged hate crimes perpetrated by detention center guards, to the FBI.

The detention center in question, known as the West Texas Detention Facility, is operated by LaSalle Corrections, a for-profit outfit that, according to its website, “manages 18 facilities with a total inmate capacity of over 13,000 and leases one facility to a law enforcement agency.” The report, published Thursday, provides a jarring glimpse inside the world of privatized immigrant detention, which the Trump administration is seeking to expand. The allegations bear disturbing similarities to other abuse claims made by detainees of African descent in recent weeks.

Compiled by the Texas A&M University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, and RAICES, a Texas-based legal organization, the report is based on interviews with 30 Somali men who described their experiences at the West Texas Detention Facility from February 23 to March 2 of this year. The report points to consistent accounts of detention center personnel, including the warden of the facility, all of whom are contractors under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, engaging in deeply abusive practices.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) takes very seriously any allegations of misconduct or unsafe conditions,” ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarippa said in a statement to The Intercept. “ICE maintains a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive behavior and requires all staff working with the agency to adhere to this policy. All allegations are independently reviewed by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility. ICE has not been made aware of any allegations prior to this initial reporting from RAICES.”

The backgrounds of the men, who ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s, varied. “Some came to the U.S. as refugees when they were children. Others entered recently with visas or without status,” the report says. Some of the detainees are married to U.S. citizens and have U.S. citizen children. One of the interviewees in the report who fits that description, a man whose name was given only as Taifa, came to the U.S. at age 12. He was convicted of marijuana possession in 2002. Twelve years later, ICE came to his home and arrested him. He has been moving through immigration court and the detention system ever since.

What all of the men have in common, the report notes, is that they “were in ICE custody for the sole purpose of effectuating deportation after receiving final orders of removal.” All of the men interviewed reported having been pepper-sprayed at least once during their week in detention, while 14 others — nearly half of the interviewees — reported other types of physical abuse.

Diana Tafur, a supervising attorney with RAICES who took part in the investigation, told The Intercept that for reasons of confidentiality, the full complaints detailing what the men experienced have not been made public. Tafur said the network of groups that investigated the alleged abuse were initially tipped off by family members and attorneys for the men locked inside the West Texas facility. The interviews, which were conducted last week, culminated in complaints filed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and its inspector general’s office, as well as local authorities.

“The assistant United States attorney for the Western District of Texas responded right away and they did say that they had forwarded the information to the El Paso division of the FBI,” Tafur said, adding that the “horrific abuse rose to violate various federal crimes, as well as civil violations.”

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

One detainee, a man called Dalmar, told the legal advocates that the warden of the West Texas Detention Facility hit him in the face four times while he was in the nurse’s office. “Are you going to let this happen?” Dalmar recalled telling the medical staff, to which a staff member allegedly responded, “We didn’t see anything.” Dalmar claims he was then “placed in solitary confinement, where I was forced to lie face down on the floor with my hands handcuffed behind my back while I was kicked repeatedly in the ribs by the warden.”

“When I told him, ‘I‘ll get a lawyer to sue you,’ the warden responded, ‘We’ve got enough money,’” Dalmar claimed.

According to the LaSalle Corrections website, Mike Sheppard, a veteran corrections officer, has overseen the West Texas Detention Facility as warden since 2015.

The Intercept reached out to the West Texas Detention Facility looking to speak to an official who could comment on the report. A receptionist at the facility said, “Technically we’re not supposed to give out that information or we can’t give out that information.” When asked what specific categories of information the facility couldn’t give out, the receptionist replied, “Any information.” The receptionist then provided a number for LaSalle’s corporate office. The number connected to a voicemail box that had not been set up. The Intercept also called LaSalle’s Austin office. A receptionist there said an official with the company would or would not respond with comment later in the day. The company ultimately did not respond.

Under ICE’s 2000 National Detention Standards, as Thursday’s report notes, contractors working with the immigration enforcement agency are permitted to use force “only after all reasonable efforts to resolve a situation have failed. Staff must attempt to gain a detainee’s willing cooperation before using force, and under no circumstances should force be used to punish a detainee. Yet numerous detainees reported excessive use of force as punishment, without cause, and as the initial action taken in a situation.”

The complaints in the report shed light on the lack of enforcement options available under the standards and ICE’s unwillingness to ask private contractors “for strict adherence” to them, said Elissa Steglich, a professor at the University of Texas Law School’s immigration clinic. “These are contractual arrangements with private corporations, and we’ve seen ICE defer to their private interests,” she said.

The men interviewed for the report independently describe witnessing or being subjected to physical force that included multiple accounts of officers throwing detainees to the floor and, in one case, slamming a man’s head against the concrete “even though he did not resist.” The report adds: “One of the detainees, Sharmaarke, alleged that LaSalle corrections officers sexually assaulted him by fondling his penis and groin area over his clothes while he was pushed against the wall.”

“This happened to him multiple times,” the report claims.

In addition to the physical abuse, the detainees who had been through the West Texas facility described use of solitary confinement — what the government euphemistically refers to as “administrative segregation” — that appears inconsistent with the guidelines ICE contractors are required to abide by.

Under those rules, a committee at the facility is required to hold a hearing and issue a formal order before a detainee is removed from the general population. “None of the detainees we talked to who were placed in solitary confinement were provided copies of their segregation orders, found guilty of committing a prohibited act at a hearing, or posed a threat,” the report notes.

Instead, the report suggests a pattern of detainees being thrown into solitary for arbitrary or vindictive reasons, including asking for socks and underwear, talking too loudly to the warden, and asking to be sent back to Somalia.

Thursday’s report comes just weeks after an Intercept story on strikingly similar complaints made by a group of Somali detainees at an immigration detention center 1,800 miles away from western Texas — the Glades County Detention Center in Florida. Since December, dozens of Somalis who were on a botched deportation flight that was returned to Miami have been in detention, several of them accusing guards at the detention facility of violent assaults and racism. (ICE has denied the allegations.)

Detainees in Texas reported being pepper-sprayed on multiple occasions, leading, in some cases, to difficulty breathing and coughing up blood; being placed in solitary confinement as a form of punishment, including after being pepper-sprayed; and being the subject of racial epithets from guards at the detention facility. Similarly, some detainees at Glades reported that guards used pepper spray against them as a form of punishment, including by spraying into a crowded cell, making it difficult to breathe. The Glades detainees also said that they were sent to segregation units after making complaints and that they had experienced racism at the jail. “They called them ‘niggers.’ They called them ‘boy.’ They’ve said things like, ‘We’re sending you boys back to the jungle,’” Lisa Lehner, one of the attorneys representing the Glades detainees, told The Intercept last month.

At the West Texas facility, detainees similarly reported guards using racist language when addressing them. “Shut your black ass up. You don’t deserve nothing. You belong at the back of that cage,” one detainee recalled an officer saying. “Boy, I’m going to show you. You’re my bitch,” recalled another. “You are a terrorist,” said a third.

“The pattern and practice of abuses LaSalle corrections officers engaged against the group of African detainees over the course of a week amounts to hate crimes, conspiracy against rights, and a deprivation of rights under color of law,” says the report. “The officers used epithets (‘terrorist’ and ‘boy’ and ‘n*’) in combination with beatings, broad and indiscriminate use of pepper spray, and routine and arbitrary use of segregation and other violations to demean and injure the men.”

By congressional mandate, ICE is required to meet a quota of 34,000 beds filled each day. The Trump administration has sought to increase that number to 51,000. Housing that many people requires significant resources devoted to medical care. In that area, too, the West Texas Detention Facility appears to have fallen woefully short.

In 2015, Taifa, the man who came to the U.S. at age 12 and now has a U.S. citizen family, was involved in a car accident where he shattered his pelvis and suffered brain trauma. According to the report, his injuries require multiple medications and psychiatric care. However, since he was detained, Taifa said he had not received medications or had access to a psychiatrist. A detainee named Mohamed, who claims to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the torture and murder of family members in his home country, added that he was denied medication to treat his PTSD at the facility. He also claimed that he had not received any medical care in response to him coughing up blood after being pepper-sprayed several times.

Many of the men interviewed for the report have spent months or years in detention after receiving a final order of deportation because ICE was not able to deport them to Somalia. Steglich, the University of Texas Law School professor, said two deportation flights were canceled in the last month, without explanation from ICE. Many of the men did not have travel documents and could not reach their embassy, which might have been a reason for the delay, she noted.

“Overall, this raises a real question of the credibility of ICE engaging in pre-detention of folks who have been ordered deported without any assurance that flights can actually happen,” Steglich said. “I think it’s significant that we saw weeks, if not months, of detention that we know of, and two flights not going forward. And that begs the question of the necessity of [ICE] detaining folks when they did and keeping folks detained.”

The West Texas Detention Facility has a history of scrutiny for its conditions. In 2016, the ICE Office of Detention Oversight reported the detention facility had multiple deficiencies with discipline and health services. “A review of facility training records showed facility staff did not consistently receive required training on the use of non-lethal equipment, e.g. oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray,” ICE investigators found, using the name for the active ingredient in pepper spray.

A 2016 article from Fronteras Desk, a collaboration of public radio stations across the southwestern U.S., mentions detainees complaining of inhumane treatment at the facility, including some who said they were forced to use plastic bags as toilets. In May 2017, Mexican journalist Martín Méndez Pineda, who was seeking asylum in the U.S., wrote a Washington Post column on his experiences at the West Texas Detention Facility, where he was held. It was there, he said, that he “experienced the worst days of my life.”

Alan Dicker from the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, a collective that works with detained migrants, said the report’s findings were not surprising. But many detainees will not speak out about conditions inside the facility, he added, out of fear of retaliation.

“They’re terrified,” Dicker told The Intercept. “I’ve had family members tell me their loved one will not tell them about what’s going on because they’re too afraid to do so.”

According to the LaSalle website, the detention center was owned by Emerald Corrections until April 2017, when LaSalle acquired it. Sheppard, the current warden of the facility, was previously working for the facility under Emerald, according to LaSalle’s website.

Though complaints of abuse have dogged the West Texas Detention Facility for years, Steglich said the guards are no doubt emboldened by the anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government. In January, for example, President Donald Trump reportedly used the word “shithole” to describe African countries.

“The rhetoric that we hear from high levels in the administration that has been very negative, often with racist undertones regarding Africans in particular, in combination with their discussion of the countries being recalcitrant, being terrorist supporting, and generally hostile toward America,” Steglich said. “That will feed a sense of impunity on behalf of corrections officers and jailers and give a sense of appropriateness of punishing immigrants rather than acknowledging that their detention is civil in nature only, and should not be punitive.”

Steglich added that the responsiveness of the U.S. attorney’s office to the alleged abuses, exemplified by the decision to share the information with the FBI, was encouraging. She said, “I’m heartened that they recognized the egregiousness.”

Diaspora

Somali Man charged the deaths of 4 in fatal I-55 accident

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STAUTON, IL – A Colorado truck driver has been charged following an investigation into a multi-vehicle accident that killed 4 people and injured 11 others. Mohamed Jama, 54, of Greeley, Colorado, turned himself in to the Madison County Jail Monday.

The accident happened on southbound I-55 in Madison County on November 21, 2017.

The fatal accident killed 2 sisters, Madisen and Hailey Bertels and a friend, Tori Carroll, and an out of state woman, Vivian Vu in another vehicle.

Authorities say the accident occurred when a tractor-trailer driven by Mohamed Jama failed to slow down and stop for cars in front of him in a construction zone.

By the time it was all over, 7 vehicles were damaged and the people inside them injured or killed.

The sisters attended high school in Staunton.

The deaths deeply touched Staunton where people knew the young women or knew people who were their friends. Many in town were still grieving the loss. Matthew Batson said, “I’ll hear stories about them all the time, even though it’s been five months? Yes, it’s a lasting effect.”

The Madison County State`s Attorney Tom Gibbon said if convicted of all the crimes Mohamed Jama could spend the rest of his life in prison. With summer coming on and more construction zone Gibbons says there`s a warning for all of us.

“Each of us out there in our cars we really need to pay attention, watch out, slow down you never want to see something like this to happen again it so terrible for all the victim I’m sure that no person would want to be the cause of something like this.”

Jama is charged with 4 counts of reckless homicide and 8 counts of reckless driving. He`s being held in the Madison County Jail without bond.

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Books

CANADA: Edmonton author aims to boost diversity in children’s book publishing

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EDMONTON—Two years ago Rahma Mohamed’s then four-year-old daughter saw an Elsa costume, complete with blond braids, and pleaded with her mother to buy it so she would look “beautiful.”

That’s when Mohamed decided her kids needed more cultural inspiration than the blond princess from Frozen.

After a year of work, the first-time author published Muhima’s Quest, a children’s book that tells the story of a young African-America Muslim girl who wakes up on her 10th birthday and goes on a journey.

Now, Mohamed’s at work on her second book, which is due out at the end of the month. She’s on a journey of her own, she said, to boost diversity in children’s publishing.

“I wanted to create a character who had African descent and is a Muslim in a children’s book because I just found out that there were none that were available in the mainstream,” she said.

Her books show kids it’s OK to be different, she said. Take her first book: some Muslims don’t celebrate birthdays, she explains, and the little girl in the book struggles with her faith and questions why she doesn’t celebrate like her classmates do.

“The overall message is that we do things differently, but that part is what makes us beautiful,” Mohamed said.

She said she felt it necessary for her kids to see themselves represented in the books they read in order to “enhance their self-confidence, as well as bolster their sense of pride.”

Mohamed, who writes under the pen name Rahma Rodaah, self-published her first book and since last summer, has sold 200 copies locally.

“It does take a lot of resources and you have to self-finance, but I believe in the end it’s worth it,” she said.

She hopes to go bigger with her second book, which focuses on the universal concept of sibling rivalry, and features a young girl who plans on selling her little brother because she believes he is getting all the attention.

“My overall goal is to portray Muslim Africans who are basically a normal family.”

Mohamed says her previous book was well-received by parents at readings she had done at public libraries and schools.

“Most of them who are Muslims really loved that the kids could identify with the characters,” she said.

The books also acted as a conversation starter for non-Muslim families, she said.

She said, for her, the most exciting part of the journey is knowing that she is making a difference in shaping the minds of young Black Muslims.

“We are underrepresented, misunderstood and mostly mischaracterized. It is time we paint a different picture.”

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Minnesota

When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway

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Mukhtar Ibrahim

In October 2013, two Somali teenage girls named Ayan and Leila shocked their parents by running away to join ISIS in Syria. Their radicalization story is unusual in that it happened in Norway.

Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.

Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.

“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”

His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.

When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”

It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.

“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.

“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”

Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.

When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.

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