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Opinion ICE is sending Mauritanians back to modern-day slavery

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement  agent .
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent . (David Maung/Bloomberg News)

THE WEST AFRICAN nation of Mauritania is known for its poets, for its reserves of gold — and for its failure to take meaningful action to curtail the pervasive practice of modern slaveholding. Tens of thousands of people there, especially women and children, are believed to be in bondage, which explains why undocumented Mauritanians living in the United States have seldom been deported in the past — because doing so would mean enslavement and even torture for many of them.

That seems not to concern the Trump administration’s deportation agents, who, in a stark departure from past practice, have sent back dozens of Mauritanians to a likely future in bondage. In many cases, the deportees have lived in the United States for many years, during which they were merely required to check in periodically with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The deportees in question are black Mauritanians, who are ethnically distinct, and speak a different language from the majority Arab and Berber tribes that form the country’s majority and its slaveholding merchant class. They have suffered brutal discrimination as well as enslavement for decades. More recently, the government stripped them of citizenship, meaning that black Mauritanians living overseas, including in the United States, are stateless.

Mauritania doesn’t want them, and many of them left under threat of violence from the authorities. Heedless of that, and the grim fate that awaits them if they return, ICE is arresting and deporting them anyway. That is unconscionable. After deporting just 18 Mauritanians in the two years ending in October 2017, ICE has removed 79 since then; 33 of them had been convicted of a criminal offense. Another 41 are in ICE detention, according to the agency.

ICE’s arrests and deportations are enabled by the administration’s pressure on the Mauritanian government, which responded by authorizing travel documents that allow deportees to be returned to Mauritania. That sent a chill through the biggest U.S. community of Mauritanians, located in Columbus, Ohio, many of whom have lived there for 20 years.

Mauritania was the last nation on Earth to outlaw slavery, in 1981, but that was mainly a legal nicety. Between 40,000 and 90,000 of its 4.3 million people are believed to be held in households in a hereditary slavery system, passed from generation to generation, with little consequence from the authorities. Antislavery activists in Mauritania have been subjected to harassment and arrest, as documented by a recent report by Amnesty International.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Mauritania’s anti-trafficking enforcement is “negligible.” The Factbook added that of 4,000 child labor cases referred to the police in recent years by nongovernmental advocacy organizations, not one resulted in prosecution or conviction.

That provides an obvious reason for the administration to use its discretion and spare unauthorized Mauritanians who have lived productive lives in the United States from the possibility of a horrific fate. But discretion and common sense have not been the hallmarks of this administration’s immigration policy. The result, in this and other cases, is tragedy and suffering.

Read more:

Sherif Mansour: Mauritania wants to put this blogger to death for criticizing its caste system

Letter: ICE agents acted without compassion

Ariel Rodriguez: Undocumented and disillusioned, I decided to leave America. This loss is mutual.

Fareed Zakaria: Trump is manufacturing an immigration crisis. Here’s why that helps him.

Catherine Rampell: The real hoax about the border crisis