Five D.C. activists rushed to Dulles International Airport on Wednesday night to try and stop the deportation of Seyni Diagne, who lived in Columbus, Ohio. He had a series of flights that took him from the Midwest to Mauritania.
Denise Woods was the first to arrive at Dulles. She is a member of Sanctuary DMV, a local organization that fights to protect immigrants. She made several efforts to halt the plane. First she found a man on the train to the terminal who was also on Diagne’s flight. She asked him to refuse to sit down when he got on the flight, but after he agreed, he then “quickly put on his headphones,” says Woods, and when she asked him if he’d do it, “he shook his head no.” Woods ran to the gate (she had a ticket for her own flight) to find that the flight had boarded, but that one woman was not on the plane yet. She tried to convince this passenger to stand up and not let the plane take off, but “she couldn’t do it because of her husband’s job,” says Woods. Then she begged employees in the gate area to help, but for the most part, they “stonewalled” her.
When four other Sanctuary DMV members got there, they also tried, asking airport attendants and officials of various stripes to stop the flight.
“Once we saw that the plane had taken off,” says Sanctuary DMV member Jesse Rabinowitz, “we pleaded for them to turn it around.” It didn’t turn around, and now Diagne’s numerous advocates are unsure of where he is.
He was detained in Columbus back in May, according to his attorney Julie Nemecek.
“He was at home, he didn’t have an appointment or anything when ICE called,” says Diagne’s friend Hamidou Sy. “And he said OK. He took a shower and went to see them, and they detained him.”
Diagne’s home country, Mauritania, has long been, itself, a country-sized loophole in the American immigration system. The Atlantic’s Franklin Foerreported on Mauritania and its immigrants just this month. “The country is ruled by Arabs,” wrote Foer, “but these refugees were members of a black subpopulation that speaks its own languages. In 1989, in a fit of nationalism, the Mauritanian government came to consider these differences capital offenses. It arrested, tortured, and violently expelled many black citizens. The country forcibly displaced more than 70,000 of them and rescinded their citizenship. Those who remained behind fared no better. Approximately 43,000 black Mauritanians are now enslaved—by percentage, one of the largest enslaved populations in the world.”
Some of them ended up in the United States, and the Mauritanian government did not want them back. The country would not issue their travel documents. So they built a life in Columbus. Diagne was one of them. They enjoyed a comparative sense of security, but that has ended under President Donald Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Agents have stepped up pressure on the community.
Nemecek says that her client got word that he was going to be deported on Tuesday. He was passing through Dulles by Wednesday. She put in a great deal of last minute legal work to keep him here, but to no avail thus far.
“He has a serious health condition,” she says. “He was supposed to undergo surgery soon. ICE didn’t do anything about that. They didn’t procure medical attention for him.” His advocates report that he has kidney cancer and hepatitis. (ICE did not return City Paper’s requests for comment, but we will update this post if we hear back.)
Nemecek is currently fighting a case for more than 20 former Mauritanians, and Diagne is one of them. “I’ve been working on these cases as part of a group effort,” she says. “But he wasn’t able to get legal help for his individual case while he was in detention.”
She predicts that he will be jailed as soon as he gets to Mauritania. Several of Diagne’s neighbors in his community back in Columbus have already left the U.S. to avoid the possibility of going back.
“A lot of people right now here, either their husband left and went to Canada, or they left to somewhere else because they don’t want to go to Mauritania,” says Sy. “More than 50, 60 people I know went to Canada. The saddest part is that the kids are from here—they’re from this country.”
Patrice Lawrence, policy director for UndocuBlack, an organization that advocates for undocumented black people, is also fighting for Diagne. She coordinated with the Sanctuary DMV members who went to Dulles on Wednesday night, and she plans to continue to fight for Diagne’s return.
“He has very much a credible fear,” she says.