Feds appear to find wrongdoing in use of controversial restraint on African asylees, including Colchester resident


Steven Tendo, a Ugandan refugee seeking political asylum in the U.S., discusses his case at his apartment in Colchester on Nov. 2. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Steven Tendo remembers the fear, and the pain, like a nightmare he had last night.

But it was three years ago now when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents entered Tendo’s dormitory at a detention center in Texas, kneeled on his neck and shackled his ankles. Within minutes, the agents had bound his entire body in a device known as “the WRAP” and dragged him into an empty room nearby.

Tendo was kept in the restraint — which tied his legs together and bent his head toward his knees — for hours. He was taken by bus and plane from the Port Isabel Detention Center to an Arizona airport, and very nearly deported back to his native Uganda.

Agents kept the restraint so tight at times that Tendo’s body was folded forward at a 45-degree angle, he said in interviews and in a lawsuit filed late last month. It was hard to breathe, and the pain was “excruciating,” he said. He was left alone for much of that time, he said, without food or water and forced to urinate and defecate on himself.

“They wrapped me like a sandwich,” recalled Tendo, who was seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing from torture and political violence. “It’s something that I would never wish even on my worst enemy.”

Today, the 38-year-old lives in Colchester, where he settled after ICE agreed to halt his deportation and, several months later, released him from custody on a condition called humanitarian parole. In Vermont, Tendo faced the threat of deportation again last November. But ICE again called it off, letting him stay here for at least another year.

Meanwhile, a half-dozen advocacy groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — which includes ICE — over the agency’s use of the WRAP on Tendo and at least three other African asylum seekers. The October 2021 complaint asserted that ICE’s use of the WRAP ran contrary both to manufacturer guidelines and the feds’ own use-of-force policies. In short, this “constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” the complaint says.

It prompted an investigation by Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. And late last month, the government’s own investigators published a response to the complaint that suggested they had found some wrongdoing with what had occurred. 

The federal investigators sent “several findings and recommendations” to ICE for the agency’s consideration, the page-and-a-half letter states. “These findings,” according to the letter, “were related to lack of policy, oversight, documentation, justification, lack of recording, training, use of the WRAP at detention facilities and during transport.”

It is rare for Homeland Security to publicly respond to a civil rights complaint, much less to provide any explanation of its findings, according to Fatma Marouf, director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M University’s School of Law, who helped write the complaint.

Marouf has drafted about a dozen civil rights complaints to Homeland Security, she said, and regularly talks to other attorneys who file such complaints. This case, she said, led to probably the most substantive response she has ever come across.

“I think their investigators were pretty horrified by ICE’s use of the WRAP,” she said. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the investigation or the findings described by the civil rights and civil liberties office. 

According to the department’s response letter, officials will post their investigative report online once they receive a response from ICE. Marouf said it’s likely the document will be heavily redacted — and unlikely that ICE will adopt its recommendations. 

Still, she said, her team plans to file a Freedom of Information Act request to attempt to garner more information about the report’s contents. She noted this could be useful for the lawsuit that Tendo has since filed against Homeland Security and its leadership. 

That civil suit, filed Sept. 28 in U.S. District Court in Burlington, also focuses on ICE’s use of the WRAP, which Tendo’s attorneys said damaged his already fragile health.

According to the lawsuit, the WRAP’s manufacturer states that people should be kept in the device temporarily, with their bodies at no less than a 90-degree angle — guidance that was not followed in Tendo’s case. The manufacturer also tells users to assess if a person has any medical conditions upon being placed in the WRAP. Tendo, who has diabetes, never had his health examined while in the device, the lawsuit asserts. 

The suit also points to ICE’s use-of-force policy, which states that restraint devices should be used as sparingly as possible to ensure people’s compliance. 

Tendo initially resisted leaving his dorm at Port Isabel, thinking the agents were making a mistake because his asylum case was still pending appeal before a judge, and he had surgery scheduled to remove a cataract in his right eye, the suit states. But he was later put back into the WRAP a second time, even after complying with agents’ orders.

Attorneys representing Tendo — including Marouf, Hassan Elsouri of Washington, D.C., and Erika Johnson of Burlington — are asking a federal judge to award Tendo “compensatory damages” and declare that his treatment violated ICE policies.

Tendo fled Uganda in 2018 after he was repeatedly tortured and government operatives killed and threatened members of his family. He arrived at the U.S. border from Mexico in December 2018, at which time a federal interviewer determined his story to be credible.

He would go on to spend the next two-plus years in ICE custody at Port Isabel as his case inched slowly through federal immigration court proceedings in Texas.

Tendo’s lawyers have described how his diabetes spiraled out of control due to the inadequate medical care he received: He went blind in one eye, began to lose vision in the other and had recurring boils on his body. The disease also decimated his immune system, and his lawyers have said he was denied many of the accommodations he would have needed to stay at the Los Fresnos, Texas facility safely, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A judge ultimately denied Tendo’s application for asylum in June 2019, and as of last fall, he had exhausted all potential appeals of that decision with no success.

Since ICE granted a stay on his deportation last November, life in Vermont has been a mix of ups and downs, Tendo said in a recent interview. He’s heard essentially nothing from ICE, and continues to feel support from local advocates and their families — some of whom wrote to him in Texas and encouraged him to move to Vermont in 2021. 

But there have been hurdles — among the most significant of which has been the surgery he had to get in May to remove the cataract he developed while at Port Isabel. “It was challenging,” Tendo said of the surgery, noting it limited his ability to work.

At the same time, he and Elsouri, one of his lawyers, have struggled to find an organization in Vermont that could sponsor a visa allowing Tendo to work in the U.S. longer-term. Since Tendo has long served as a Pentecostal minister, Elsouri has been pursuing an R-1, or “temporary religious workers” visa, or possibly an EB-4 visa, which gives preference to religious workers.

So far, Tendo and Elsouri haven’t found a congregation in Vermont that is willing to take Tendo in and who is able to meet the government’s requirements for sponsoring a visa, Elsouri said. Tendo also said he worries that, as a Black man living in a largely white state, there are some congregations that do not want him to serve as the head of their church.

“The pastor’s background, it’s extensive. He has a lot of experience,” Elsouri said Monday. “But unfortunately, with not that many vacancies (for a Pentecostal minister), we don’t really have much to work with.” 

There are just weeks left until Tendo’s stay of deportation order expires Nov. 15, and Elsouri and Marouf said it’s impossible to say for certain what will happen next. They said they plan to file another request for an order delaying Tendo’s deportation soon.

But the attorneys said they feel confident Tendo will get more time to figure out his next steps. Given that Tendo is employed — and the relative notoriety of his case, which has attracted widespread media coverage, as well as intervention from members of Congress — it’s unlikely he would be targeted for deportation, Elsouri and Marouf said.

They also noted that the lawsuit he filed last month could help on that front, too.

“He’s an important witness in this case and shedding light on these civil rights abuses,” Marouf said, speaking on a Zoom call Monday with Tendo on the line. “Now if they tried to deport him, it would have the appearance of retaliation.” 


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