With All Eyes on Trump, Obama Is About to Deport Muslims

The latest victims of the “Deporter-in-Chief" are Bangladeshi refugees waging a desperate protest campaign.

About 160 Bangladeshi immigrants facing imminent deportation say that they will likely be arrested or killed if they return home, and that the Obama administration is knowingly putting them in harm’s way. Many of those scheduled to be deported—perhaps as early as Monday—helped launch the #FreedomGiving hunger strikes that took place last year in detention centers across the country.

Last week, former immigrant detainees from the New York City-based organization DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) gathered in front of Hillary Clinton’s headquarters to ask her to intervene.

“While media attention has focused on Trump’s virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric, mass deportation of Muslims is already reality sanctioned by Democratic Party-backed policies for many refugees and migrants,” said Roksana Mun, the Director of Stategies at DRUM. “We need leadership to take a clear position against these deadly deportations, and to take concrete action to stop these deportations.”

The case of the Bangladeshi deportees raises questions about how the War on Terror is already shaping domestic policies around detention and deportation—and also whether U.S. allies are exploiting concerns around national security to marginalize their political opponents.

Designated as “Terrorists” by U.S., Threatened With Violence in Bangladesh

Many of those facing imminent deportation are members or supporters of the Bangladesh National Party, which in 2014 was designated a Tier III terrorist organization by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The designation means that the immigrants areunlikely to be granted bail from detention centers, and that their political asylum claims can be denied outright.

The BNP is the second-largest political party in Bangladesh, and has been in an intense rivalry with the other main political party, the Awami League, since the end of military rule in 1990. In recent years, the ruling Awami League (AL) has faced accusations of "extra-judicial killings, 'enforced disappearances,' mass arrests of opposition activists and Islamists, and restrictions and media and internet freedoms.” Violence has often been directed against BNP members, although BNP members have also resorted to less than peaceful means, including throwing petrol bombs and allegedly instigating a firebombing.

Speaking through a translator, Jahed Ahmed, 31, told AlterNet that during the 2014 elections, a close friend and fellow BNP supporter was attacked in front of him, and later died. The BNP had boycotted the elections on the grounds it was a “scandalous farce.” 

Ahmed said he received threatening phone calls and a visit to his home, letting him know that he might be next. Next his parent’s home was attacked and his store was trashed. Eventually, he decided he had to leave Bangladesh.

Ahmed flew to Guyana, and contacted traffickers to help him on his journey north. He told AlterNet that he travelled to the U.S. entirely on foot—some 3,000 miles—a journey he described as “deadly.”

“When I got into the border of the U.S., I felt euphoric, because I saw that I was finally at my destination, I was alive,” said Ahmed. “And all the things that were dangerous to me I had left behind.”

But Ahmed was immediately put into immigration detention, and later his asylum claim was denied, which Ahmed said was a result of his BNP membership. He was eventually released from detention and is now trying to appeal his case.

Ashok Karmaker is a New York attorney who has experience bringing U.S. asylum claims for BNP members and said that his clients had reported enduring similar kinds of violence in Bangladesh—they’ve been beaten up, their homes have been ransacked, and they’ve been told that someone is looking for them.

“It’s very difficult to explain to them this kind of legal fiction,” he said when asked how his clients react when they hear about the BNP designation.

“They are scared, and they think—how can I be a terrorist?”

Politicized Terror Designation Spurs Obama’s Deportations

In October 2015, 16 organizations—including DRUM, the Council on American-Islamic Relations the ACLU of California and the Immigrants Rights Clinic at University of California Irvine School of Law—sent a letter to DHS and ICE leadership, as well a White House adviser, and requested a change in policy.

“The entirety of DHS’ claim is based on its unsupported allegation that the BNP is engaged in ‘continued terrorist activities as well as their affiliations with Islamic extremist entities including the Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). However, this position is belied by both the BNP’s history and DHS’ lack of evidence.”

Although some local immigration courts have rejected the designation of the BNP as a Tier III terrorist organization (e.g. rulings in July 2015 and October 2015), it would take a similar ruling from the Board of Immigration Appeals for the decision to be binding, according to Paromita Shah, the Associate Director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

Human rights lawyers and advocates contacted by AlterNet said there was no clear answer for why the BNP had been given this designation in the first place, a move which they said was likely informed by people inside DHS, or perhaps the Department of State.

But some people have suspicions about what’s behind the designation. “There was a shift geopolitically,” around the time the BNP received a tier III designation, said Chaumtoli Huq, a Bangladeshi-American human rights lawyer based in New York.

Obama visited India, [Right-wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi visited Bangladesh—it was a visit that had not taken place in many years,” she commented. “In some ways, this might have reflected a shift towards supporting, if not publicly, the current political party.”

But according to Huq, the AL has also been quick to use the language of counter-terrorism to undermine their political opponents. “They’re calling them terrorists—the AL is calling the BNP and any opposition leader a terrorist.”

The government is using the legal system and the rhetoric around terrorism “to try and consolidate their power,” a tactic Huq believes ties into the broader suppression of dissent she has written about online.

Immigrants, advocates and attorneys have also raised concerns that the U.S. has collaborated with the Bangladeshi government in releasing confidential information about those claiming asylum, contrary to both domestic and international law.

Retributions Against Hunger Strikers

In October 2015, during the hunger strike, a Bangladeshi Consular Minister—a member of the ruling political party—visited the El Paso Detention Facility, allegedly to convince the participants to start eating. According to detainees, sensitive information was subsequently transmitted back to Bangladesh.

Hasan, also a Bangladeshi immigrant and BNP supporter, spoke to AlterNet from Theo Lacy detention center in California. (We have used a pseudonym at Hasan’s request.) He has been in immigration detention since he arrived in the United States in late 2014.

Over the phone, Hasan said that after the hunger strike, his family in Bangladesh was visited by the police, and asked about his whereabouts. He believes information he provided to ICE through his asylum claim—including his name, address and copies of his national ID—was supplied to the Bangladeshi government.

“I think that we did our hunger strike and ICE was angry,” he said when asked why he thought this information had allegedly been shared.

Hasan said his asylum claims have also been denied on the grounds of his BNP membership and alleged terrorist association.

After the October consular visit, advocates filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties arguing that the visit jeopardized the asylum claims of the detainees, and might even create new grounds for asylum. Detainees may be deported despite the fact this investigation is still ongoing, according to DRUM. More recently, members of the Bangladeshi press published the names of the 159 people believed to face imminent deportation.

“The repeated publication of the names of these former asylum seekers in February 21, 2016 strengthens the request that individuals should be given the opportunity to assess whether they are at particular risk based on the public disclosure of their names and specific identifying information,” said Paromita Shah in an email.

ICE did not immediately respond to requests for comment about whether they had violated their own policies or national or international law by sharing information with the Bangladeshi government.

The high-profile nature of their cases has left many Bangladeshi immigrants especially afraid of the retribution or violence they may face if returned home.

Both Ahmed and the other Bangladeshi immigrant interviewed by AlterNet had been active in hunger strikes during their time in immigration detention. Over the fall, Senator Bernie Sanders issued a statement in support of the #FreedomGiving hunger strikers, and both campaigns met with supporters and released detainees.

At the rally in front of Clinton’s campaign headquarters on Tuesday, demonstrators held signs reading, “Trump Rhetoric + Obama Policies = Deported to Death.” Campaign members Xochitl Hinojosa and Mini Timmaraju met briefly with the protesters.

According to the Huffington Post, the Clinton campaign released a statement shortly after the meeting stressing the former secretary’s support for President Obama’s executive action as well as comprehensive immigration reform, and condemning Republicans for promoting “policies that tear families apart.”

AlterNet reached out to the campaigns to inquire if they supported the Obama administration’s current approach to deportations—what activists refer to as #Deported2Death—and if they were planning to take action to try to halt the imminent deportations.

Erika Andiola, the National Latino Press Secretary for the Sanders campaign, said that the Senator “has called on the Obama administration to reassess his immigration enforcement policies, as well as to extend Temporary Protected Status to families who have fled violence in Central America.” She added that Sanders has introduced legislation that would eliminate the detention bed quota and noted the candidate’s recent letter calling for the protection of transgender detainees in ICE custody.

As of Saturday night, the Clinton campaign had not responded to requests for comment.

Update:According to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, “On April 3, 85 individuals who had been ordered removed from the U.S. by an immigration judge were transferred to a chartered aircraft at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Air Operations Coordination Center in Mesa, Arizona, for repatriation to Southeast Asia. The repatriation flight, coordinated by ICE Air Operations, occurred on April 4 and included individuals from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. All of those on last weekend’s flight had been provided the opportunity to present their cases in immigration court, were issued final orders of removal, and had no outstanding stays that would prohibit their removal. The Department of Homeland Security has made it clear that individuals who come to the U.S. illegally and do not qualify for asylum or other legal relief are priorities for enforcement, and will be repatriated consistent with our nation’s laws and values.” 

Fahd Ahmed of DRUM responded by declaring, “The Obama administration just deported nearly 100 South Asian detainees who crossed three continents seeking safety in the US. What happens to them next is blood on his hands. Immigration authorities must stop fulfilling Trump’s dreams and give the remaining men a real opportunity for their cases to be heard.”

Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about prisons, national security, and immigration detention.
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