Fatima Sowe was in class at East Carolina University when she got a text from her brother saying Immigration and Customs Enforcement had arrested their father at what they had expected to be an uneventful appointment concerning his immigration case. She said she was in shock and went straight to their home in Raleigh to wait for her brother to return; her mother was crying.
She found out her father, Abdoulie Sowe, was taken to Stewart Detention Center, a privately-run facility in Georgia, due to a removal order issued in 2001 she said they never received. That was in July of last year; he is still being held there while his case moves through a labyrinthine immigration court system.
Sowe, a taxi driver and father of three, is among hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants whose chances of being deported were slim to none before Donald Trump became president. Many have lived in the United States for years–building families, businesses, and communities–even after a judge has issued a “final removal order” against them. That’s because previous administrations deemed their deportation a low priority, directing ICE to focus instead on people with criminal records. Trump reversed that directive, sending deportations skyrocketing. And deportations are increasingly happening when least expected–during appointments and check-ins where undocumented immigrants show up willingly to meet with government officials about their cases.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, statistics on the number of “check-in” arrests aren’t available, but the group surveyed immigration attorneys who said they’ve become commonplace. One lawyer in Atlanta said that 15 out of 20 clients attending check-ins had been arrested, while another in Houston put the number at 24 out of 25.
These surprise arrests, which can happen after years of complying with ICE, are devastating to immigrants and their families. Sowe suffered a health emergency when he first arrived at Stewart, because he didn’t receive medication needed for a recent kidney transplant. He also needs medication for other health conditions including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and general anxiety disorder.
These surprise arrests, which can happen after years of complying with ICE, are devastating to immigrants and their families.
Gigi Warner, Sowe’s attorney, said he had to be hospitalized during this episode and that despite asking, neither she nor the family has received any records about where he was hospitalized or how long his stay was. They only knew it happened because Sowe told them.
Fatima Sowe says her father claims to be doing better now, though she isn’t sure that’s true. "I don't really know how he's really doing but he's trying to put up a brave face for us, so what I hear on the phone he says that he's fine," she said.
Such abuses are common at Stewart, which is operated by CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, a for-profit prison company with a long history of mismanagement and abuse. A 2017 Department of Homeland Security report found that many detainees were forced to wait days to receive medical care. Many complained about being served moldy or spoiled food and lacking basic hygiene supplies. DHS’s findings added to a pile of evidence collected by advocacy groups showing that inhumane conditions have plagued Stewart for years.
These conditions aren’t the result of understaffing or lack of funding. Beckie Moriello, an immigration attorney based in Raleigh, says ICE locks people up in prisons like Stewart to get them to drop what might otherwise be winnable cases.
“[Detainees] say the food is inedible, I don't mean bad, I mean inedible,” Moriello said. “I've heard there's maggots in it. And there's mold and water coming out of places. It's a terrible, terrible place and people will give up perfectly good cases and just say, ‘No I would rather get deported, I can't stay here anymore.’”
ICE did not respond to requests for comment due to the government shutdown.
Abdoulie Sowe and his family are still fighting his deportation, in large part because they believe that if he is sent back to his native Gambia he won’t have access to the medical care he needs for his kidney transplant. The Gambia is an impoverished West African nation, and a letter from their embassy to Sowe’s lawyer says that sending someone with a kidney transplant could cause them serious harm or possible death.
Fatima Sowe said they expected her father would be able to come home sooner because of his health problems, but their application to have him released from ICE custody on bond while his case works its way through appeals was not granted.
Warner, his lawyer, said she is currently appealing his case in the Eleventh Circuit and she has also filed an application for deferred action with ICE and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is a humanitarian form of relief. Since Mr. Sowe is already in detention, the deferred action application will be handled by ICE, which doesn’t give her much hope that it will be granted.
Fatima Sowe is helping to support her mother and taking online classes at East Carolina University and labs at Wake Technical Community College. But as her father’s case drags out they’re all having to make tough choices about what to do if he’s deported.
"It's harder to cope now, now I feel like we're really starting to feel it,” Sowe said. “We felt it in the beginning but we're really starting to feel it financially, and we're starting to try to figure out how we're going to reshape our lives."
“We felt it in the beginning but we're really starting to feel it financially, and we're starting to try to figure out how we're going to reshape our lives."
Samuel Oliver-Bruno was also arrested by ICE unexpectedly at an appointment. A construction worker who came to the United States in 1994, Oliver-Bruno married and raised a son in Greenville, North Carolina. In 2014, border agents detained him when he re-entered the U.S. after caring for his ailing father in Mexico. He was allowed to stay in the country under “orders of supervision” because his wife had lupus and he was the family’s primary breadwinner. He continued living in Greenville and checking in regularly with ICE until 2017, when his status was revoked.
His son, Daniel Oliver-Perez, was in the room when ICE agents told his father that the order of supervision wouldn’t be renewed. He said they told him it was because of the Trump administration’s policies. His thoughts wandered to a poster in the waiting room that said, “Stay in school, don’t be stupid.”
"I was like, ‘How do you want us to stay in school if you're breaking families away,’" Oliver-Perez said.
"I was like, ‘How do you want us to stay in school if you're breaking families away.’"
Samuel Oliver-Bruno decided to take sanctuary in a church in Durham and applied for deferred action from USCIS. In November, USCIS required him to go to a biometrics appointment, where the agency would collect his fingerprints. But when Oliver-Bruno arrived for the appointment, he was tackled by plain clothes officers.
A group of people from his church and social justice organizations who accompanied him for moral support sprang into action, attempting to block the van that was taking him away. Twenty-seven people were arrested, and Oliver-Bruno was deported a week later.
Cleve May, pastor at CityWell Church, where Oliver-Bruno was living, said his deportation was profoundly traumatic for those who had come to know him there during the past year. And the Oliver-Bruno family is suffering.
Daniel Oliver-Bruno has had to put his life plans on hold; he’s taking a year off from college and working at a restaurant to help support his mother. He can still talk to his dad on WhatsApp and went to visit him in Mexico for Christmas. His mother couldn’t come since she’s not a citizen and wouldn’t be allowed back in the country if she left. It’s the first time they’ve spent Christmas apart, he said.
In this political climate some immigration advocates say ICE is also using its expanded powers to target activists in an attempt to quash dissent. In Georgia, Eduardo Samaniego, an outspoken and undocumented immigrant rights organizer, is currently jailed at the notorious Irwin Detention Center after being handed over to ICE custody for failing to pay a $27 cab fare. His supporters say he is being kept in isolation and is not receiving the care he needs for his physical or mental health.
Manzoor Cheema, a coordinator with The Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia, a Raleigh-based group that has organized protests against unjust deportations, says that while it’s important to fight cases like these in the courts, it’s also necessary to tie these efforts to a larger anti-oppression movement.
"Laws mostly indicate the balance of power in a society,” he said. “We have to focus on building our power so that we can change the balance of power in the favor of marginalized and oppressed people.”