The Africans Who Suffer in a Deportation Purgatory

AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

African immigrants are getting deported from the US with increasing frequency. After months in limbo inside detention centers where they suffer stress and abuse, the African countries the immigrants “return” to are neither familiar or welcoming. Everywhere deportees go, they suffer new traumas: racism, poverty and violence in the US; stigma, hostility and violence in Africa.

For Popula, Ashoka Mukpo details this threat to African immigrants in America and looks closely at two people who have suffered since 9/11: Nora Johnson, who is threatened with deportation to Liberia, and Claudia Smith who was sent to Sierra Leon. There, Mukpo writes, people drift “like ghosts in a halfway realm where they weren’t American anymore, but neither were they quite Liberian.” Some end up homeless, subsisting off of mud mixed with vegetable oil, begging on the streets. The author reminds us: “Some were once our neighbors in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Atlanta.”

“Deportees”—the colloquial word for people ejected from their lives abroad—are trapped in between these two ideas of America. The inadequacy that Liberians are made to feel by their country’s position in the global order can breed resentment toward those with American accents, made worse by disgust at the recklessness and arrogance that it’s assumed lies behind their blown chance at a better life. For those who arrive in Liberia on the heels of a criminal conviction or prison sentence, the reception is cold—even hostile.

“As bad as it sounds, someone told me that once a Liberian knows you a deportee, they will hate you for life,” said one Liberian man. He was deported from Minneapolis in 2010 for robbing a motel with a fake handgun when he was in his late 20s. “But secretly. They will never tell you. You only find out when you get broke, then they wait for it and say, you dirty dog. Look at you now.”

Francis Kollie, a Liberian prisoners’ rights advocate, once saw a crowd gather around a group of recent deportees to throw stones at them and hurl insults. “The mindset is, America is my heaven, so I will do everything I can to get there,” he said. “If you were deported from that safe haven, it means to some extent according to the cultural belief that you are useless.” Upon arrival, deportees are sequestered in lockup at immigration facilities until a relative or acquaintance can sign for them. Those who do not have those connections can be imprisoned indefinitely. If mental illness played a role in their path to deportation, there are few options and their conditions often worsen.

Some deportees have stories of people they arrived with who fell in with bad crowds and, in over their heads, were killed by their new “friends.” Others, defeated and alone, commit suicide. One deportee, speaking to a reporter for a Liberian daily in 2015, described experiences that would be familiar to many of her peers: “Nobody knows why I’m back nor what I’ve gained since being in America. All they care about is that I’m a deportee who messed up. It’s stigmatizing. I can’t get anything because I speak [American English]. We are so hated and divided and because of that, our lives are destroyed out here.”

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