Federal immigration officials rousted Gilles Bikindou of Cary from his sleep in a holding cell in Atlanta on Friday morning and shattered his dream of staying in the United States, where he had sought political asylum and humanitarian relief.
His pastor, the Rev. Lauren Efird of Cary’s Greenwood Forest Baptist Church, said Bikindou was awakened at 2 a.m. Friday and told, “Get ready. We’re leaving.”
By 8 a.m., he had landed in Washington, and by 10 a.m. he was on a plane for Ethiopia, where he would have a 90-minute layover before taking the last leg of a journey he had hoped never to make. By 11 p.m., he was expected to be back in the Republic of Congo.
Efird, who got a call from Bikindou during his stop in Washington, said he told her agents had taken his driver’s license, his Social Security card and the debit card for his personal bank account.
“They didn’t even give him the suitcase we packed for him, which we packed according to their rules and submitted for their approval,” Efird said. Inside the suitcase were some clothing, underwear and shoes to help Bikindou resume a life in Congo.
Efird said Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents did give Bikindou 30 days’ worth of the medicines he has been taking for HIV and diabetes.
Bikindou is a native of Congo who came to the U.S. in 2004 planning to attend college with support from his country’s government. Once he got here, his pastor said, he ran afoul of that government by refusing to give false legal testimony about atrocities he said he had seen it commit.
Efird and others fear that once Bikindou returns to Congo, he will be persecuted by the government because of his tribal connections and his past refusal to cooperate. They also are concerned that he will not be able to get the costly regimen of medicines he needs.
Bikindou was ordered to leave the U.S. in 2006 by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He applied for political asylum, but a judge denied his application after a lengthy court process. He received his final order of removal in January 2010.
ICE arrested him June 2010 but released him on an order of supervision a few weeks later. That order required him to report regularly to the ICE field office in Charlotte to show he had not run away and that he was not a threat to society. ICE says he did so.
Under the supervision order, Bikindou was allowed to continue to work and drive. At the same time, ICE officials were trying to secure travel documents from Congo to ensure that if Bikindou were deported, the country would accept him.
Bikindou went to every appointment he was asked to attend, Efird said, but he was arrested without warning at a January appointment with ICE in Charlotte. ICE officials said afterward they had obtained the needed paperwork to send him back to Congo. He has been in ICE custody ever since, Efird said, and has been hospitalized three times.
U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Tom Tillis, a Republican, had both inquired about Bikindou’s case. ICE wrote each lawmaker to assure that when he was kicked out, Bikindou would be given enough of the medicines he needs to sustain him until he can find care in his native country.
In its response to Tillis’ inquiry, Sean Gallagher, an ICE field officer in Atlanta, where Bikindou was taken after his arrest, acknowledged that Bikindou had complied with the terms of his order of supervision.
“ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security,” he wrote. “However, as acting ICE Director Thomas Homan made clear, ICE will not exempt classes or categories of aliens not lawfully present in the United States from potential enforcement.”
While his advocates in Cary had hoped for a judge to release Bikindou on humanitarian grounds – because of his life-threatening illnesses – that request was denied Thursday afternoon. Bikindou’s immigration attorney, Hans Linnartz of Raleigh, said there still is a chance that the judge will reopen Bikindou’s request for political asylum, based on new evidence that members of Bikindou’s tribe have been under increased pressure from the government in the past six months. Linnartz said the judge could reopen that case even after Bikindou’s deportation.
Linnartz said ICE’s insistence on deporting Bikindou, whom it does not consider a threat and who had a job and a role in the community, demonstrates the Trump administration’s zeal to stop immigration, while showing no mercy.
“It’s part of a very broad picture in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been told, ‘Our only job is to deport people. Get on with it. Anybody and everybody you can deport, go ahead and do it.’ ”