Published 6:26 AM EDT Oct 16, 2018
During a meeting in the White House last week to launch a task force designed to stop human trafficking and modern-day slavery, President Donald Trump vowed to do everything in the federal government's power to stop the ongoing scourge.
"Our country will not rest until we have put these vile organizations out of business, and rescued every last victim," Trump told the officials gathered there.
Yet this week, the Trump administration may deport four black men to Mauritania, a Muslim-majority nation in Africa that the CIA describes as a hotbed for human trafficking and modern-day slavery of its black minority residents. If the deportations are carried out, they would represent the latest in a growing number of black Mauritanians forced to return to a nation that their attorneys say could lead to imprisonment, torture, slavery or death.
From fiscal years 2014 to 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement averaged just seven deportations to Mauritania each year based on those concerns. But in 2018, the agency deported 79 people to Mauritania, and ICE says another 22 are in custody awaiting deportation.
Lynn Tramonte, director of the Ohio Immigrant Alliance, an advocacy group based in a state with one of the country’s largest Mauritanian communities, said she was sickened to learn of the White House event, where Trump, his daughter, Ivanka, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all promised to protect people from human trafficking. That followed an event in March where First Lady Melania Trump named a Mauritanian woman who was born into slavery and co-founded an anti-slavery organization one of the Department of State’s International Women of Courage Award recipients.
"It makes me angry, but this is their level of governance: photo ops and saying they're doing things, saying that they care, and then doing the exact opposite," Tramonte said. "It's not surprising, but it's frustrating."
More: Does slavery await father of 5 from Lockland fighting deportation back to Mauritania?
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Tramonte said previous administrations have limited deportations of undocumented immigrants from Mauritania because of the flagrant human rights atrocities committed there. Those living in the U.S. have been stripped of their Mauritanian citizenship, further limiting their rights if forced to return.
More than three dozen Democratic lawmakers last week sent a letter Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking they stop “the deportation of black Mauritanian nationals, who face the threat of race-based discrimination, violence, or slavery if forced to return to Mauritania.”
“Most Mauritanians in the United States arrived here seeking refuge from government-led racial and ethnic persecution and extreme violence,” wrote the lawmakers. “For the following two decades our government declined to deport Mauritanians because of the dangerous and potentially life-threatening conditions they would face if they were returned to their country of origin.”
The lawmakers, including Sen. Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, want Nelson and Pompeo to “clarify U.S. policies and practices regarding deportations of Mauritanians” to Congress within 60 days.
Mauritania was the last nation in the world to abolish slavery in 1981, but the CIA and the State Department say the practice lives on, ensnaring a "significant portion" of the country's black population.
"Adults and children from traditional slave castes in the Black Moor and Afro-Mauritanian communities are subjected to hereditary slavery practices rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships, where they are often forced to work without pay as cattle herders and domestic servants," a State Department summary explains.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Brendan Raedy said there has been no policy change regarding Mauritania that led to the increased deportations. He said Mauritanians, like all other immigrants, are allowed to stay in the U.S. if they have a valid visa or if they make a claim for some other kind of relief.
"After considering the merits of each case, if an immigration judge finds an individual ineligible for any form of relief, the judge will issue a final order of removal, which ICE carries out in accordance with applicable U.S. law," Raedy said.
In a series of deportation orders issued against four Mauritanians this summer by ICE agents in Michigan, the agency wrote that it had considered the "humanitarian concerns" raised by attorneys but decided that "pursuing the ordered removal is the proper enforcement action in this case and consistent with the core mission" of ICE.
Human rights activists say that cold analysis ignores the fact that the U.S. government could be facilitating the slave trade by deporting people to Mauritania, a decision that could cost them their freedom or their lives.
In August, Adotei Akwei of Amnesty International USA said the continued deportations show "disdain for their human dignity and basic human rights and a complete violation of international law that flies in the face of decades of US traditions."
In an attempt to save some of the Mauritanians, a small group of private attorneys has banded together in recent months to represent them in court, winning temporary reprieves for some but losing just as many.
"There has to be some way to fight this," said Julie Nemecek, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio, who has been assisting Mauritanians throughout the summer. "Donald Trump needs to stop those planes."
At risk are people like Issa Sao, 37, who lives in a Cincinnati suburb with his American wife and two U.S.-born children. Sao's asylum application was denied in 2004, and he was ordered deported in 2009, but ICE agents allowed him to stay in the country as long as he regularly checked in with them and maintained a flawless criminal record.
Sao was given a work permit and had been working full-time at a pharmaceutical company while moonlighting as an Uber driver to support his family. But when he went for his regular check-in earlier this year, he was arrested and is now facing deportation.
"Right now, I think they will kill us all," Sao told The Cincinnati Enquirer in a phone call from an ICE detention center in Louisiana on Thursday, the same day as the White House human trafficking event. "I will be killed. That's all I can say. I will be tortured and killed. That is what they do to us."
Contributing: Mark Curnutte, The Cincinnati Enquirer.