COLUMBUS, Ohio — On a hot summer night in Senegal, Abdoulaye Lam dialed his wife’s phone number as usual.
The Mauritanian native, 39, tried to hold back tears as his children — ages 3, 7 and 8 — talked about their lives in Columbus without him. Before hanging up, Lam told the kids how much he missed them and his wife that he wanted to kiss her.
In 2004, Lam escaped persecution in his home country and came to the U.S. seeking asylum. His application was denied, but he was allowed to stay in the country without status.
In December 2017, however, he was detained following a routine checkup with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Four months later, he was ushered onto a deportation flight to Mauritania in Africa — only nine days after his youngest son was born.
“I was thinking it was the American dream for me, but, sadly, it just turned into a nightmare,” Lam said during a phone call from Senegal, where he now lives.
Lam is one of the nearly 1 million immigrants who were forced to leave the country during the Trump administration.
Among them, thousands were unjustly deported, said Nayna Gupta, associate director of policy at the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center. These were people who either had the legal ground to stay or whose compelling circumstances warranted a positive exercise of discretion, she explained.
In Ohio, at least 50 asylum-seekers were deported to dangerous living conditions in the past four years, according to Maryam Sy, an organizer at the Ohio Immigrant Alliance. Many still have family members here. Lam’s children, for example, all were born in the U.S., and his wife, who is from Mauritania, has a pending asylum application.
More than half of these Ohio deportees came from Mauritania, where Black residents have been stripped of citizenship, detained, tortured, sometimes even killed. But for a variety of reasons that could range from lack of legal representation to judges’ unsympathetic attitudes, they did not receive asylum status, Sy said.
Lam saw a glimpse of hope when President Joe Biden promised to reunite separated migrant families. But now, more than three years after his deportation and seven months into the new administration, he is still trapped living abroad and has no way to come back.
“Biden is not doing a lot so far,” he said. “I know he has a lot on his plate. But please, remember people like us, especially those of us who still have families and kids here.”
Advocates are urging Biden to bring back deportees and reunify them with their families.
“President Biden has spoken a lot about rectifying racial injustice, and many of these unjust deportations from the prior administration are against Black and brown immigrants,” said Gupta, who recently wrote a policy proposal advising Biden to establish a centralized office to review applications from those seeking to return to the U.S.
“I don’t think a simple change in the administration is enough to reorient the immigration system,” she continued. “But it’s an opening and a chance to have a seat at the table.”
A record number of deportations took place during the previous two administrations. More than 2.7 million immigrants were removed during the fiscal years that roughly correspond to Barack Obama’s presidency, ICE records show. Approximately 889,000 were deported during Trump’s years.
Moreover, Trump specifically targeted those from Africa through his Muslim and African bans. The administration sent back thousands of asylum-seekers to countries with dismal human rights records, Gupta’s report shows.
Many had to endure inhumane conditions during their removal journey, according to Sy.
“Some people were chained from when they left the detention center to when they got to their country,” she said. “Grown men and women had diapers on because the ICE officers didn’t let them use the bathroom.”
Abdoulaye Thiaw, 57, lived in Columbus for 16 years without status until he was deported back to Mauritania in September 2018.
During the 16-hour removal flight, his hands and feet were shackled the whole time, he said. Suffering from high blood pressure, he pleaded with ICE officers to let him use the bathroom but they denied his request.
“The way that ICE treats people, it’s not right,” Thiaw said during a phone interview from Senegal. “I’ll never forget that in my life.”
For some deportees, abuse and imprisonment awaited them on the other side of the charter flight.
When Demba Diawara, a Cincinnati resident for 17 years, was deported to Mauritania in 2020, local police there arrested him immediately, he said. He was released from jail after his friends paid the police $1,500.
“The police said, ‘You’re Black. You’re denied as a Mauritanian, so why do you come back again?’” said Diawara, 43. “I thought they were going to hurt me.”
In Mauritania, he could not find work due to rampant discrimination and had to rely on his friends sending him a couple of dollars now and then to survive.
Right now, Diawara lives with his friend in Mali, where ongoing armed conflicts threaten the lives of civilians. Last month, the local militia killed a dozen people in a nearby village, he said.
“My life is in danger now,” he said.
Biden has promised to reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and enforce immigration laws without tearing apart families. While the number of new removals has gone down, there currently are few legal channels for those already deported to come back.
Deported individuals theoretically could challenge their removal orders by submitting a petition for review or filing a motion to reopen their case. In practice, however, the process is slow and protracted and often requires the financial and legal resources that many deportees lack, Gupta said.
They also could apply for legal status through the sponsorship of their family members. But deportees cannot simply turn around and come back. A previous removal order means that one has to remain abroad for three or 10 years, depending on their previous length of stay in the U.S.
With Biden in office, however, advocates are ramping up their efforts to push for a more comprehensive approach to handling deportation cases that they believe to be unjust.
Gupta’s proposal, shared with a number of Congress members, has not yet received a commitment from lawmakers, she said. But more than two dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus since have urged the administration to reevaluate and reverse wrongful removals, according to their July letter to the administration.
Gupta said she felt encouraged by Biden’s announcement in early July to bring back immigrants who served with the U.S. military and were deported. But she said the administration needs to expand the initiative to cover all unfairly deported individuals.
“I’m disappointed that we don’t have that yet, but we’ll continue our efforts in the hopes that they will commit to doing this,” Gupta said.
Some deportees and their families said they are tired of waiting.
Back in Cincinnati, Diawara had a successful car dealership and lived with his fiance and two children. The day he was arrested by ICE, he dropped off his kids at school, went to work and never came back.
“My daughters cry every day now because they don’t know what’s happening to me,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to allow me to come back because I know people who have been deported for a long time and never returned.”
Lam used to be the main provider for his family. In Columbus, he worked two jobs to put himself through college and earned a $75,000 yearly salary as a data analyst by the time of his deportation.
With Lam now in Senegal and barely getting by, his wife, Vatimou Mikaill, is struggling to raise their three kids on her own.
Formerly a stay-at-home mom, Mikaill now works full time in hospital food service, sometimes taking on 12-hour shifts. Even so, she finds it difficult to put food on the table and afford rent, and she almost lost her apartment at one point.
“When my husband was arrested, I was pregnant,” Mikaill said. “I thought it was the end of the world. I thought I would die.”
“I’m really disappointed and surprised why Biden hasn’t done so much to help people like my husband,” she continued. “I hope he will do something, and I hope he will do it soon.”