The van pulled up to John F. Kennedy International Airport on a recent Thursday evening. Around it, passengers poured out of taxis and headed toward their gates. Inside the van, Prince Gbohoutou gripped his seat belt in fear.
The government was about to put the 26-year-old tattoo artist from Maryland on a flight to his native country in Africa.
A month earlier, Gbohoutou, a recently married asylum seeker from the Central African Republic, had gone to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement appointment in Baltimore hoping to get a work permit. Instead, the New Carrollton resident was detained in front of his American wife and told he was being deported.
Now, ICE agents opened the van’s door and ordered him out. But Gbohoutou, with shackled hands, said he held fast to the seat. He was afraid to return to the Central African Republic, where he said his mother had been killed.
As suitcase-toting bystanders looked on, Gbohoutou said, an ICE agent struck him on the legs with a baton while others tried to yank him out of the van.
Eventually, the ICE agents cut the seat belt with a knife — nicking Gbohoutou’s hand — before handcuffing him to a wheelchair and taking him to his flight, he claimed. But the airline refused to take an unwilling passenger, Gbohoutou said, and ICE was forced to return him — at least temporarily — to his cell.
Justine W. Whelan, an ICE spokeswoman, said in a statement that “all allegations of physical abuse and mistreatment by ICE officers in this case are patently false.” She said an immigration judge ordered Gbohoutou deported seven years ago, his appeal was denied, and it was the agency’s “duty to execute that final order.”
But Gbohoutou’s story, including the dramatic airport scene on May 24, has sparked a new campaign to allow him to remain in the United States, where he came legally as a child and spent much of his life.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has become an advocate for Gbohoutou, saying he is “part of our community” and could be in “imminent danger” if deported. Van Hollen said he has contacted officials at ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, warning them that his removal would be “unjust.”
“I’ll be killed if I go back,” Gbohoutou said Saturday in a telephone interview from an ICE detention center in Frederick, Md. “I’m just hoping some people find it in their hearts to [let me stay].”
Similar, if less dramatic, encounters have played out with increasing frequency across the country as the Trump administration cracks down on illegal immigration. Undocumented immigrants without criminal records, like Gbohoutou, who were generally off limits under the Obama administration, are now fair game, officials say.
Gbohoutou came to the United States legally in 2006, when he was 14, to join his father, who worked for their country’s ambassador in Washington. His mother stayed behind in the Central African Republic, which is one of the world’s poorest countries and has long been wracked by religious and civil conflict.
When the situation there worsened, his father applied for asylum, including his son as a dependent. But the application was rejected. When their appeal was also denied, his father thought it better to remain in the United States illegally than return.
“The fact that he was brought here as a kid means he’s really blameless,” said Adam Crandell, Gbohoutou’s immigration attorney, noting that he graduated from High Point High School in Beltsville, Md., and was eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program to protect undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children.
Gbohoutou was still in high school when he met the woman who would become his wife. He was on a D.C. bus when on stepped Shaniece.
“He was cute, I was cute,” she said. “We exchanged words, and then we exchanged numbers.”
For their first date, he took her to her favorite restaurant, TGI Friday’s. For their second, she went to his senior prom.
But as they dated, Gbohoutou’s life began to fall apart. Shortly after his family’s asylum application was denied, his mother was kidnapped in the Central African Republic by political rivals, he said.
“I guess they wanted my dad to go back,” Gbohoutou said. “They tortured her. And they beat her to death.”
His father died a few weeks later — a “physical manifestation of grief,” Crandell said — leaving Gbohoutou to navigate life in the United States as an undocumented immigrant.
That life was not without incident. Gbohoutou was arrested in 2011, when he was 19, accused of shoplifting from a mall, Crandell said, but the charges were dropped. His only other criminal charge, for failure to present identification to police during a traffic stop in 2016, was also dropped.
In 2014, Gbohoutou was detained by ICE for about six months. Crandell said it was unclear why his client was held, but it might have been connected with the shoplifting charge.
Since then, Gbohoutou has been required to check in with ICE periodically. Despite worries over the new administration, his first few check-ins under President Trump went without a hitch.
The last one, on Shaniece’s birthday, seemed to be a sign that his hard luck had ended. The couple wed last May and had recently begun the process to get him a green card. This spring they vacationed in Florida.
When they returned, there was an envelope from ICE waiting. The agency asked Gbohoutou to come in on April 19 but didn’t say why. The couple hoped it was so he could receive a work permit.
“We didn’t have any fear,” Shaniece said. “We thought, what could go wrong?”
At the Baltimore office, Gbohoutou’s name was called while Shaniece was in the bathroom. When an ICE agent asked him if he had a relative to take his things, his stomach dropped.
When his wife returned, Gbohoutou told her to be strong.
“I put my head down and started crying,” she said. When she looked up, he was gone.
With the help of the immigrants rights group Sanctuary DMV, Shaniece hired Crandell and began a campaign to free her husband. On May 16, Crandell filed a motion to reopen Gbohoutou’s case.
But on Thursday, after missing a call from Gbohoutou, Shaniece rang his detention center only to be told he was being transferred to New York to be deported.
Crandell says he thinks his client was spared Thursday only because no ICE agent was scheduled to accompany him to Africa. But he hopes the airport incident has bought him enough time to persuade the Board of Immigration Appeals to reopen Gbohoutou’s case.
Crandell said that ICE was within its rights but that sending his client back to the Central African Republic would be “hamfisted and cruel.”
Gbohoutou said he hopes to remain in the United States, become an architect and start a family.
“I’m not a bad person,” he said, but added that if ICE tries to deport him again, “I’m still not going to get on the plane.”