On January 17, 2016, Sadat Ibrahim, a gay man from Accra, Ghana, arrived at the San Ysidro U.S. border checkpoint between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, pleading for help. He asked for asylum, telling immigration officials that he had fled home after he was ambushed and attacked by an anti-gay group.
Homosexuality is illegal in Ghana, punishable by up to three years in jail, and vigilante gangs often terrorize gay people. According to testimony Ibrahim gave to an asylum officer, one of his friends had been beaten by an anti-gay gang in August 2015 and was forced to give up the names of gay acquaintances, including Ibrahim. Another friend texted Ibrahim to warn him, and he immediately went home to collect his belongings and leave the area. But as he was packing, gang members forced themselves into his apartment and attacked him. Ibrahim says he was stabbed in his left arm and only just managed to escape by hailing down a nearby taxicab.
“They stabbed me and gave me a cut on my back and hand. I received treatment at the hospital. I couldn’t walk for one week,” he told the asylum officer. “The group posted the incident on the social media with a picture of me. They said that I was gay and asked people to arrest me whenever they saw me.”
Ibrahim didn’t report the incident to the police out of fear. While hiding out in a nearby town, he plotted his escape to the United States. He had made it to Tijuana via Brazil and then Belize, paying a man he met there $500 to help guide him into Mexico.
When asked what he thought would happen if he returned to Ghana, he responded, “I fear I am going to die. I will be killed.”
Now, at any moment, Ibrahim may be deported back to Ghana, where the gang that attacked him is still at large. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers never delivered a piece of mail containing evidence crucial to his case, according to Ibrahim and his lawyer. They maintain that an immigration judge would not have denied Ibrahim’s asylum claim if that evidence had been delivered.
Bryan D. Cox, ICE’s southern region communications director, told The Intercept that “Mr. Ibrahim was not denied access to legal correspondence” and that “while ICE is precluded from discussing specifics of [Ibrahim’s] case under agency privacy rules absent his written consent, ICE is fully compliant with the procedures outlined in its detention standards, and this allegation is not consistent with the facts.”
But Ibrahim’s lawyer has motioned to reopen his asylum claim, arguing that the evidence ICE allegedly failed to deliver, which is now submitted to the court, proves “the main element” of Ibrahim’s case: His attacker is still at large.
“The whole detention system — including how they handle people’s documents and mail — is so broken, and so unconcerned with due process”
Stories like this all too common in immigration detention centers, advocates say. Even with a strong case, as well as family and community support, asylum applicants are working against the system. They are often forced to represent themselves in arduous and opaque legal proceedings, in which much is beyond the asylum-seeker’s control and subject to frequent mishandling or mistreatment by ICE or private prison contractors.
“The way ICE operates is something between malicious and careless,” Detention Watch Network Policy Director Mary Small told The Intercept. “The whole detention system — including how they handle people’s documents and mail — is so broken, and so unconcerned with due process that I don’t think you can characterize incidents like this as accidental.”
After he arrived in Tijuana, Ibrahim was sent to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, the largest immigration detention facility in the country, and assigned a judge to hear his asylum claim. Like roughly 94 percent of people detained at Stewart, Ibrahim had no resources to hire a lawyer, so he had to represent himself.
Discrimination against LGBT individuals in Ghana is rampant, said Frederick, a gay social and development worker in Ghana, in an interview. (The Intercept is withholding his full name for his safety.)
“Challenges, such as verbal abuse and blackmail, have become almost inevitable for gay people. It’s a daily occurrence,” Frederick said. “There have been reports of physical abuse, not only in some areas considered as very religious, but also in some communities considered more hospitable to gay people.”
But Ibrahim’s specific claim hinged on the fact that the leader of the gang who attacked him remained free.
The gang is known as the Safety Empire, and they allegedly assault gay men after luring them into fake dates using social media. The name of the Safety Empire’s leader is redacted from Ibrahim’s interview with his asylum officer, but it’s public knowledge that the group is led by Sulley Fuseini, also known as Doya Dundu – a man who has dubbed himself “the Gay Slayer.” Nigerian pastor Jide Macaulay issued a warning about Fuseini on Facebook during the summer of 2015, along with photographs of him:
This is Doya Dundu, he is based in Ghana and has promised to terrorize the gay community. He uses Facebook and other social media to track down his victims, strip them naked, assault them with sticks and leather, beat and humiliate them publicly and then post the video online. This MUST STOP. He has used words such as “we are [hunting] for gays;” he claimed that Islamic teaching objects to homosexuality; he is motivated by religious violence towards sexual minorities.
Fuseini was arrested in September 2015 — about a month after Ibrahim had been beaten at his apartment — when he and his gang poured boiling hot water on one of their victims. However, he was soon let out and allowed to return to the neighborhood where the attack occurred. “I am finally [released] on bail to enjoy my freedom to continue with the good works that I had already started,” he posted to Facebook on November 28.
In October 2016, Fuseini posted a picture of ammunition on his Facebook page with the caption, “I Reserve One bullet each for my haters.”
Ibrahim’s family members in Ghana sent these social media posts showing that Fuseini was no longer behind bars to Stewart Detention Center, along with other evidence to support Ibrahim’s asylum claim.
However, according Virginia Raymond, an attorney at the Austin nonprofit Justice for Our Neighbors who is now helping Ibrahim fight his deportation, ICE officers never gave Ibrahim the material or even notified him that it had arrived, an allegation ICE disputes.
The judge denied Ibrahim’s asylum claim in August 2016 — specifically citing the fact that Fuseini had been arrested, and there was no reason to believe he had been released. The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed Ibrahim’s appeal of the decision in January this year.
“The Immigration Judge considered the respondent’s testimony that he believes that the leader … is no longer in jail,” reads the decision, “However, the Immigration Judge observed that the respondent provided no evidence that the leader … was released.”
Ibrahim has since been transferred to a facility in South Texas, where his case has gained attention from immigration activists and advocacy groups in the local community. He is now represented by a human rights legal team, which is urgently trying to appeal the judge’s decision and get a new asylum hearing before he is sent back to Ghana. Raymond told The Intercept that Ibrahim is “terrified,” as deportation proceedings have begun, and he could be sent back as soon as the paperwork is finished. (Ibrahim’s main attorney, Alicia Perez, declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Raymond has been working on immigration cases for years, but she said that Ibrahim’s situation still astounded her. “As used to [detention centers] as I am, ICE withholding information was shocking to me,” she said. “These can’t be called courts of law. It’s a perversion of any system of justice.”
Yet Ibrahim’s case is hardly an isolated incident. A 2016 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the Adelante Alabama Worker Center found that detainees in six southern immigration detention centers were regularly denied due process rights. Stewart, which has been targeted for closure by multiple activist campaigns over allegedly poor living conditions and internal abuses of power, was singled out for particular criticism of due process issues.
“Detainee interviews suggest several serious and systematic due process violations in the Stewart Immigration Court, particularly for those immigrants appearing without an attorney, or pro se,” reads the report. “Detainees repeatedly reported that immigration judges at Stewart have demonstrated clear bias against pro se asylum seekers.” That conclusion echoes a 2015 study from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review that found that immigrants are 10 times more likely to win their cases if they have counsel than if they represent themselves.
Detainees told researchers that legal resources at Stewart’s law library are incomplete and outdated. Detainees also reported that, even though the facility is legally obligated to provide them with the number of photocopies needed for court — usually three — the warden at Stewart prevented them from making more than one copy of anything. Multiple detainees said that they ran into difficulties with receiving mail, and in some cases, they didn’t receive crucial legal documents sent by family members, like what happened to Ibrahim.
Immigration advocates have traced many of the problems at Stewart and other detention facilities to the private contractors who manage them. Stewart is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (recently rebranded as CoreCivic), and lawyers working at the facility have complained that the company imposes arbitrary rules on their visits and has prevented them from having access to their clients. For example, CoreCivic was contractually obligated to put in a video-conferencing system for detainees to use with their attorneys within 60 days after it began operating the prison in 2014. It took almost two years and numerous complaints for the system to be installed.
The Trump administration is expected to expand the use of privately run immigration detention, raising concerns that more rights violations will occur. In April, the GEO Group, the private prison company that runs the South Texas facility where Ibrahim is currently being held, received a green light from President Donald Trump to build a $110 million detention center near Houston as part of a 10-year, renewable contract.
Advocates also worry about the future of asylum cases for LGBTQ individuals under the new administration. Though Ibrahim’s due process disaster took place under Barack Obama, and the decision to deny him asylum was handed down less than a week after Trump became president, the new administration’s actions show a pattern of disregard for international LGBTQ rights.
While Trump would have difficulty overturning existing protections for asylum-seekers that are based on sexual orientation, his policies and decisions on individual asylum cases could still have lasting, harmful effects. His executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries raised grave concerns for queer Muslim refugees and asylum-seekers, as four of the targeted countries have laws against homosexuality. In July, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a gay rights opponent, was nominated to serve as ambassador for international religious freedom. This spring, an HIV-positive gay man from Russia who had been living in the U.S. while applying for asylum was detained by ICE when he returned home from vacation.
“For the LGBTQ community, the asylum system is really a lifesaving safety net that we have to have,” Aaron Morris, the executive director of Immigration Equality, told WNYC shortly after the election, “It’s an international human rights obligation we have, and if we don’t do it, I think it makes it a pretty terrible standard for the rest of the world.”