Last week, the U.S. government sent Mory Keita to a country he hasn’t lived in since he was three years old. Brought to the U.S. from Guinea as a small child and now in his early 30s, Keita lived here undocumented for about three decades and has a daughter who is an American citizen.
This didn’t stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from pushing for Keita’s removal—a scenario that has become all too common under zero-tolerance immigration policies. What makes Keita’s deportation extra jarring is that he was part of two cases alleging abuse by government authorities, including one filed against ICE by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and one alleging assaults on two immigrants by Ohio jail staff.
Keita was a key witness in the latter lawsuit, which was brought by Ahmed Adem and Bayong Brown Bayong. All three men were detained earlier this year at the Butler County Jail, just north of Cincinnati, where Adem and Bayong were cellmates. Local authorities were keeping them behind bars on behalf of ICE.
“Bayong, a refugee from Cameroon, came to the United States to escape brutal conditions in his own country, with hope for safety,” his lawyers write in a preliminary statement to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. “Instead, he continues to be physically beaten by correctional officers while detained by ICE for civil immigration detention at Butler County Jail.”
Bayong alleges at least three beatings by jail guards—including one in August while he was infected with COVID-19—and claims that guards made “threats such as ‘I hope you die bitch’ and, after being pushed down the stairs, ‘When you get down the stairs, I am going to beat all the teeth from your mouth.'” At one point, the suit says, Bayong was taken to an isolation cell where a correctional officer “punched Mr. Bayong with closed fists all over his face and head” as two other guards watched. Bayong lost a tooth.
The lawsuit also alleges that guards repeatedly beat Adem—a Muslim of Somali and Ethiopian descent who “has lived in the United States since he was young” and “considers the United States to be his home”—and called him a “fucking terrorist,” with one guard almost throwing his prayer rug in the toilet before another guard intervened.
Adem, who was also in civil immigration detention, was “beaten until his face was swollen,” the suit alleges. “Officers called Mr. Bayong and Mr. Adem numerous racial epithets, including ‘dirty Africans,’ ‘monkeys,’ and ‘goats.'”
Mory Keita said he witnessed guards attacking Adem and Bayong and saw one push Bayong down a flight of stairs, causing him to hit his head on a concrete floor. And Keita was willing to testify to the court about what he saw.
The Adem and Bayong suit—against Butler County, the jail, and county commissioners—was filed in federal court on December 8.
A week later, on December 15, Keita, Bayong, and Adem asked the court to stay his deportation as the case played out. That same day, Keita was transferred from Butler County Jail to an ICE facility in Louisiana.
Keita’s lawyers filed an emergency petition asking U.S. District Judge Timothy S. Black to intervene. But before Black could rule on the petition, the court was told that Keita had been put on a plane from Louisiana to Guinea.
If the “flight remains in and is scheduled to stop within the United States, the Court hereby ORDERS Petitioner to be removed from the flight and to remain in the United States, in the custody of ICE, pending his deposition testimony,” Black ruled.
In addition to his involvement in the Adem and Bayong case, Keita was also one of three plaintiffs in a case the ACLU filed back in April. The suit challenged ICE’s practice of holding immigrants for deportation in jail facilities where COVID-19 had been known to spread, and it accused ICE of facilitating the spread of COVID-19 between facilities and into the larger community.
The ACLU suit said Ohio’s Morrow County Jail and Butler County Jail failed to adequately treat immigrant detainees for existing conditions, including asthma and thyroid cancer, and failed to adequately protect people against the coronavirus. It blasted ICE’s policy of rounding up undocumented immigrants for deportation and then putting them in general population jails before they were transferred to immigrant-specific facilities to await deportation.
“Social distancing is simply impossible for immigrants in crowded detention centers,” Freda Levenson of the ACLU of Ohio’s said in a statement, calling the institutions “incubators of COVID-19” and “vectors for spread of disease into surrounding communities.”
Keita and the other two detainees in the ACLU suit all had health conditions that could make COVID-19 more deadly. They were also civil detainees, “having either no, or low level criminal histories,” the suit says. They all have ties to the Central and Southern Ohio community as well, and the suit argued that they should be released to await their deportation proceedings at home and that to do otherwise was a violation of due process.
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