Lum and several other women lay restless on a haphazard boat headed on a treacherous pilgrimage through the New World. The year is 2019, not to be confused with 1619, and Cameroonian women are crossing a lake into Panama. From Panama, they hope to trek on foot and bus to the southern border of the United States of America. Lum, whose name I have changed to protect her identity, began this trip in June 2019 in Cameroon with a borrowed airplane ticket to Ecuador, a warning, and a glimmering possibility of hope.
From Ecuador, she reached Pasto, Columbia, then Medellin, before moving onward to Panama, where she began a two-week trek through the forest by foot. Lum contracted malaria in Panama, and shuffled between three different immigrations camps, set up like refugee stations for the wanderers: Camp One, Camp Two, and Camp Three. From Camp Three in Panama, Lum was back on the road, this time through Central America to Tapachula, Mexico. It was here that the American ordeal began with a stack of paperwork and bureaucracy that marked the beginning of a long and arduous journey.
The stories of Black immigrants depict a vivid image of unimaginable anti-Blackness through foreign terrain, and a systematic dehumanization and degradation of Black life that permeates every aspect of migration.
Lum had nowhere to go but knew with the utmost certainty that she had to leave Cameroon. When a civil war broke out in 2018, Lum, who was 16 years old at the time, had to drop out of school. That same year, Lum was arrested for six days by a rampaging military committed to destruction in the service of power. The Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon have been in the midst of an intense civil war for the last three years in a conflict that traces its origins to early 20th century European colonization, when the German-occupied territory was divided up between the British and French after World War I. The road to independence was mired with strife, rising nationalisms, and an unwavering faith in self-determination. Tensions have escalated into the current crisis between the Francophone Cameroonian government and English-speaking factions calling for an independent Anglophone state. This continued violent conflict has resulted in tremendous devastation and forced many Cameroonians to flee their homeland. The violence in Cameroon has now claimed more than 3,000 lives and displaced more than 500,000 people according to the International Crisis Group. The crisis has further compelled another 40,000 to flee to Nigeria and deprived more than 700,000 children of education.
Now, at 19, the threats and intimidation directed towards Lum’s life were visibly lethal and escalating. Military officials began to intimidate her and her family by asking her neighbors for Lum’s whereabouts. She fled to Ecuador with three thousand dollars, having heard from her older sister that Ecuador did not require a visa. From Ecuador, she would mount into the womb of American possibility like an infant in a suffocating hold.
My path crossed Lum’s unexpectedly. After her month-long trek across South and Central America, Lum was held in a US ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention center in Mississippi—just as the COVID-19 global pandemic began to ravish detention centers, jails, and prisons across this country. As an attorney and Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, I worked alongside a team of devoted attorneys and advocates to represent medically vulnerable people held by ICE across the deep South. We filed petitions for the release of our clients, arguing that continued detention put our clients at risk of contracting the coronavirus and developing life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms, or worse. This was part of a larger effort to expose the inhumane conditions in detention centers, prisons and jails across the country.
Then Sylvie Bello of the Cameroonian American Council came to legal and advocacy organizations with an urgent call: justice for the detained Cameroonians who were protesting the conditions of their detention. Informed by calls from Sylvie and others, our legal team began interviewing immunocompromised Cameroonians in ICE detention at risk of serious injury or death should they contract COVID-19, which is how I met Lum in March of 2020. We spoke on the phone, often at odd times as it was difficult for us to call her and relied heavily on her availability. She was a prospective client in our suit when I heard her story. She was a reserved young woman who spoke with clarity. She informed me of her conditions in detention, of her life before fleeing Cameroon, and her hopes for coming to America. She told me she came to America through harrowing terrain.
I then spoke to another client, who repeated—almost verbatim—Lum’s itinerary. Then another. Lum was not alone. She was one of thousands making the journey from Africa to South America, and eventually to the US. It was not too long ago that I was a stranger to this country myself, flown out of my birthplace knowing little about where I was headed. I was 19— Lum’s age—when I was naturalized, simultaneously pledging an oath to my newfound home while struggling to confront the expansive gap between nationality and citizenship. Perhaps it was because of this that meeting Lum left me breathless.
Our work together was no easy feat. The American justice system is not amenable to freedom.
Our cases were at the mercy of appointed judges, doctrines, and procedural postures that proved time and time again to be incapable of articulating a liberatory vision for Black women.
I could not imagine this terrain, this harrowing journey through the unknown and known of anti-Blackness. Lum and the scores of people we spoke to in detention were only several of thousands. The number of Cameroonians applying for asylum in the US more than doubled—from 821 to 1,840—between 2015 and 2017. Cameroonians are now among the top 10 nationalities arriving at the southern border to seek asylum in the US—at least 10,000 Cameroonians have attempted to obtain asylum in the US since 2016.
And finally, there is the matter of American law enforcement, which—as a matter of principle, perhaps—seems incapable of dislodging anti-Blackness from its daily operation. Lum and others were ignored by medical staff, retaliated against for protesting their conditions, and met with a callous judiciary that lacks a full understanding of Cameroon’s fraught, complex political terrain.
Lum and others recount the ways in which Black immigrants were treated in Mexico, many lacking the basic necessities to maintain a life of normalcy and dignity. Matters on American soil are no better. Pauline Binam, a Cameroonian immigrant, was part of a wave of sterilizations that occurred in ICE detention. Forced sterilization, long been considered a form of torture by the United Nations, has been performed at alarmingly high rates on detained women at a Georgia ICE detention center. This, sadly, is not an anomaly. Cameroonian women have long been protesting the medical conditions in ICE detention. More than two Cameroonian women today, Neola and Josephine, are held in detention now, and have a history of treatment from medical professionals who have disregarded their autonomy.
The migration of Black women across land, boundary, and emotional terrain maps and deepens the understanding of home and personhood, of nation-building on the back of suffering, and of commitment to survival that is nothing less than a testament of miracles. Forced into slavery through the Americas, contemporary slavery through Libya, demeaned, and dislodged. Yet, the need for freedom, too, has its own momentum. Here are our women—vocal, fierce and imaginative—that continue to resist through movement and refuse infinite warfare through occupation. Lum, me, and others, are not going anywhere. There is a place in this world for the many of us for whom this world is unimaginably cruel. It is a world that demands the forging of new boundaries.