Long-Time Ohio Resident Faces Deportation to Country that Once Enslaved Him
Amadou Sow sits in a jail cell at the Morrow County Correctional Facility. He hasn’t committed a crime, not since he came to the United States in 1991, but it’s where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has kept him detained since his routine check-in back in August.
His lawyers are fighting for an emergency stay. If it’s granted, Sow will return to his wife and four children at their home in Cincinnati. If it’s denied, he’ll be deported back to his native West African country of Mauritania, where he’s at risk of enslavement, torture, and death.
Bordered by Mali, Senegal, and Algeria, Mauritania is a vast desert country populated by roughly 4.5 million people. Its caste system divides the country into a ruling class of white Arab-Berber Moors and a slave caste of black, non-Arab Mauritanians. Sow and his parents, and their parents before them, were born into the slave caste.
“They told me a lot of things, showed me pictures of what was happening in the country,” says Sow’s oldest daughter, Awa. “They said it was just not a good place to live for black Mauritanians, or any Mauritanian without any Arab descent in their bloodline.”
The last country on earth to do so, Mauritania “officially” abolished slavery in 1981, later criminalizing the act in 2007. Still, a number of factors have worked to maintain its institution: the country’s culture has normalized the subjugation of black Mauritanians for enslaved people and slaveowners alike; Mauritania’s many towns and villages are scattered far and wide across the Sahara, making enforcement a tricky feat; and the Mauritanian government, staffed with Arab-Berber Moors, has made it a dangerous task to criticize or even mention that it’s allowed slavery to continue.
Between 1989 and 1991, the Mauritanian government began a mass expulsion of its black population from the country. Nearly 70,000 black Mauritanians were ejected, including a 19-year-old Amadou Sow.
“People in military garb with military weapons went in and began grabbing people and detaining them. His sister was raped right in front of him, and he was hit in the head with the butt of a gun when he tried to intervene,” says Alexandria Lubans-Otto, Sow’s attorney. “He was then dragged along with other young men like himself, taken to a detention facility, tortured, and ejected from the country.”
The officials took Sow and the others to the southern border of Mauritania, where the Senegal River runs. There, they were told that if they make it across, they get to live.
Undocumented in his own country, Sow moved around. He stayed in Senegal for awhile and spent some time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ejected from Mauritania in 1989, it took Sow two years to get to the United States and apply for asylum, but his case was denied, and he was issued a final order of deportation.
“Sometimes the case falls apart because you have insufficient evidence to support a claim, or you get a denial because the judge is just not interested in the argument that you’re making, like, ‘it sounds bad, but not bad enough,’” says Lubans-Otto. “I’m surprised by some of the things judges think are insignificant, like rape and torture.”
Despite the denial of his asylum case, the United States government has allowed Sow and other Mauritanians to live and work here under “orders of supervision,” meaning as long as they remain law-abiding and faithful to their regular ICE check-ins.
That policy changed in 2017, with President Donald Trump’s Executive Order “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.” Per the order, immigrants from countries viewed by the U.S. as uncooperative, Mauritania included, can no longer obtain visas. In response, Mauritania agreed to issue travel documents to facilitate U.S. deportations.
These documents (laissez-passer) are entirely unique and essentially a label, says immigration attorney Julie Nemecek, with the Columbus-based Nemecek Firm. She says they pin Sow and other recipients of the document as immediate targets for when they arrive in the country that expelled them nearly 30 years ago.
“They’re given this document when they’re about to board the plane to Mauritania. They’re not authentic documents, not proof of Mauritanian identity, just a document that allows them to pass into the country for 90 to 120 days,” Nemecek says. “The police and officials there immediately know it’s not legitimate. It’s a label that they’ve been deported from the United States and they’ve applied for asylum.”
The U.S. has deported more than 80 Mauritanians in 2018, up from 10 in 2016 and eight in 2017. Many have been from Ohio, where thousands of Mauritanians settled in the 1990s after leaving New York for more factory jobs and lower housing costs.
Sow has yet to get approval for his emergency stay, and in the meantime, Lubans-Otto has requested that the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) reconsider his asylum case. In the last three decades, circumstances in Mauritania have changed, and not for the better. Should Sow return, he’ll likely face immediate incarceration, and “the conditions are awful,” says Nemecek.
“When they’re in jail, they’re beaten,” she continues, “they’re in a room with 70 other people, forced to urinate in water bottles.”
If his emergency stay is not granted Sow can be deported at any time, likely before anything comes of his reopened asylum case. Awa says she and her family are just waiting and hoping that the stay is approved. She’s been able to speak with her father over the phone a few times.
“He always says he’s fine, and he always asks about us, how we’re doing or how school is going,” Awa says. “I try to keep him up on the whole [legal] situation.”
Lynn Tramonte, Director of the Ohio Immigrant Alliance, says the larger plan is for a class-action lawsuit to halt deportations of black Mauritanians. But in the meantime, as more face detainment at their routine ICE check-in, their need for pro bono attorneys continues to rise. A fundraiser just launched at the end of October to gather legal aid funding.
“I don’t believe that my father should be treated as a common criminal, but like anyone else in this situation my hands are tied,” says Awa. “The extent of my ability to do more is based on how much influence I have and how much support he has.”
For more information, or to donate to the fundraiser, visit givelively.org/donate.