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Black immigrant rights organizations condemn the death of Cameroonian in ICE custody

Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.
The main entrance to the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A coalition of black immigration rights organizations are demanding to know more about the circumstances under which a 37-year-old man from Cameroon died Tuesday in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.

Nebane Abienwi died Tuesday after undergoing treatment for a brain hemorrhage at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. He had been detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego since Sept. 19, according to ICE.

“We demand to know the circumstances under which Nebane lost his life,” read a statement from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which advocates for immigrant rights, and seeks to raise awareness about issues facing black immigrants.

Abienwi was rushed to the Sharp Chula Vista emergency room on Sept. 26 “after experiencing a hypertensive event in the middle of the night,” an ICE news release said.

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“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agencywide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” the agency said Wednesday.

The groups calling on ICE for more answers include the Cameroon American Council, the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, the Black Immigrant Collective, the African Public Affairs Committee and others.

“We believe his death would not have occurred had he not been detained,” said Genevieve Jones-Wright, legal director for the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, adding that the group wants to get more information about what led to Abienwi’s medical emergency. “What was the incident that gave way to him having a brain hemorrhage?”

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Jones-Wright said the Otay Mesa Detention Center has a history of instances of abuse, and that Cameroonians, in particular, face hostility and physical abuse in immigration detention.

In response to calls for more information from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration on Friday, ICE referred to the agency’s previous statement.

“We have no additional information,” ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes wrote in an email. Abienwi applied for admission into the United States on Sept. 5 at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

In a news release, ICE said he did not have “proper entry documents” when he crossed through the port of entry. Advocates said Abienwi should not have been detained in the first place.

“No one should be locked up for seeking safety and wanting a better life,” the alliance said. “Black immigrants, in particular, report horrific experiences of anti-blackness, abuse, and harassment while in detention,” the group also said.

ICE does not confirm whether a person in their custody is seeking legal asylum. But Abienwi was probably an asylum seeker, advocates said. In the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, conflict has erupted between the government and protesters over discrimination against farmers and English speakers.

Amnesty International reported in June 2018 that armed separatists have killed military personnel, burned down schools and attacked teachers, while security forces have destroyed villages, tortured children and fired on crowds of protesters.

“People in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions are in the grip of a deadly cycle of violence. Security forces have indiscriminately killed, arrested and tortured people during military operations which have also displaced thousands of civilians,” said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s West and Central Africa deputy regional director for campaigns.

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Over the last couple years, Mexico has seen an increase in asylum seekers from Cameroon and other African countries, according to federal immigration data. The number of Cameroonian asylum seekers to Mexico increased from 23 in 2016 to 105 in 2017. It reached 274 during just the first half of 2019, according to the data.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of Cameroonians applying for asylum to the U.S. has also increased from about 600 in 2012 to more than 1,300 in 2016, the latest numbers available.

An ICE news release said Abienwi received comprehensive medical care while he was in custody. Physicians at Sharp Chula Vista provided treatment to Abienwi, who was nonresponsive to questions. He appeared paralyzed on his left side and remained in the hospital until he died, according to ICE. His next of kin and the Consulate General of Cameroon were notified of his death.

ICE did not say whether Abienwi’s family was notified of his hospitalization. The group of immigrant rights organizations said they condemned Abienwi’s death in ICE custody and “the human rights abuses in Cameroon that made Nebane flee.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution this summer calling on the government of Cameroon and the separatist groups “to respect the human rights of all Cameroonian citizens, to end all violence, and to pursue an inclusive dialogue to resolve the conflict in the Northwest and Southwest regions.”

The resolution has not yet been passed by the Senate. There will be a vigil in Washington, D.C., on Monday at ICE headquarters for Abienwi and other Cameroonians and allies, the group said.

Fry writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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