US to resume deporting asylum seekers after judge rejects Biden order
"Trump-appointed judge ruled against president’s 100-day suspension, raising questions over whether Ice will resist reform
Last modified on Mon 1 Feb 2021 18.14 EST
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) is preparing to resume deportations of asylum seekers after a Trump-appointed Texas judge ruled against a 100-day suspension ordered by Joe Biden.
The ruling, in response to a challenge from a leading figure in the Republican effort to overturn the election result, marks the first shot in a legal rearguard action by Trump loyalists intended to stymie the Biden administration’s agenda.
Human rights activists said the resumption of flights also raised the question of whether Ice agents, who have been accused of systemic abuse of migrants and detainees, might seek to resist the new administration’s efforts to reform the agency.
An Ice plane left San Antonio for Port-au-Prince on Monday morning carrying Haitians detained on the US-Mexican border and expelled under a highly controversial Ice interpretation of public health laws.
“Deportation flight to Haiti on the first day of Black history month,” Guerline Jozef, co-founder of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, wrote in a text to the Guardian. “What a slap in the face.”
According to activists, there are also 23 Africans facing deportation from an Ice holding facility in Alexandria, Louisiana, as early as Tuesday, including 11 Angolans, seven Cameroonians, two Congolese, and three others of unknown nationalities.
Although the Haitian flight would probably have gone ahead even under the Biden moratorium, the expected African flight defies that order, as well as guidelines laid down by the acting homeland security secretary, David Pekoske, that came into effect on Monday. Pekoske called for deportations to be limited to suspected terrorists, convicted felons deemed a threat to public security, and undocumented people caught on the border after 1 November.
At least some of the potential deportees have legal cases pending, and one of them was granted an emergency stay by an appeals court on Sunday evening. Others expected to be deported on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Ice appears to be pushing ahead with the deportation flight despite reports that Cameroonians deported to their home country last October and November in the midst of a bloody civil conflict had been imprisoned, beaten, gone into hiding – or in some cases simply disappeared.
“A lot of them were locked up in military prison, which is where they took a whole bunch of people that are arrested by the army,” said Mambo Tse, a Cameroonian community activist in the US. “It’s not safe.”
Lauren Seibert, a Human Rights Watch researcher and advocate, said: “After scores of Cameroonians were denied asylum in the US and deported in recent months, Human Rights Watch has documented multiple cases of deportees facing imprisonment, abuse, criminal prosecution and threats by the Cameroonian authorities after their return. Some of their families have also been threatened and harassed.”
On taking office on 20 January, the Biden administration ordered a 100-day halt to deportation flights, with certain limited exceptions, while Ice procedures were reviewed to “enable focusing the Department’s resources where they are most needed”.
However, a federal judge in Texas, Drew Tipton, appointed by Donald Trump last June, ordered a stay, blocking the suspension, but not the new guidelines. Tipton’s nomination was opposed by Democrats over concerns over his lack of judicial experience and his support for the reinstatement of a Texas social worker fired for using a racial slur against a black colleague. He argued: “It certainly does not evidence a pattern of hostility against anyone or any people who are of a particular race.”
The case against the moratorium was brought by the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, who played a leading role in the effort to overturn the 2020 election result.
Paxton addressed Trump supporters in Washington on 6 January shortly before the storming of the Capitol.
“We will not quit fighting. We’re Texans, we’re Americans, and the fight will go on,” he told the crowd, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Paxton has been indicted for securities fraud allegedly committed before he took office. He has also been accused of abuse of office by seven whistleblowers and is being sued for retaliation after having the whistleblowers fired. He is reported to be under FBI investigation for the abuse of office allegations.
Paxton’s lawyer, Philip Hilder, declined to comment on the reports of an FBI investigation.
After Tipton’s ruling on deportations, Paxton declared “Victory” on his official Twitter account.
“Texas is the FIRST state in the nation to bring a lawsuit against the Biden Admin,” he wrote. “AND WE WON.”
Echoing the language widely used to denounce the ransacking of the Capitol, Paxton described the 100-day deportations moratorium as “a seditious left-wing insurrection” which he had stopped.
In a statement to the Guardian on Monday, an Ice spokesperson said the agency “is in compliance with the temporary restraining order” issued by the Texas court.
Justice department lawyers argued against the stay in Tipton’s court, the southern district of Texas, but it was unclear when or whether they would appeal against the ruling. A department spokesperson declined to comment.
The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking to challenge the Texan ruling on behalf of immigrant rights groups.
“There’s a legal aspect to it and there’s a practical aspect,” Cody Wofsy, an ACLU attorney, said. “Are individual Ice officers who may disagree with the new policies of the new administration going to carry out those policies, or are they going to attempt to carry out a more unforgiving immigration policy that they might prefer?”