Ousman Darboe has held his 2-year-old daughter just twice. His wife found out she was pregnant a week after he was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2017, and the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey where he’s now detained doesn’t allow him contact with visitors, even his baby.
“I basically watched her grow up through the phone, and the glass visits,” Darboe said in a call from the jail. “She calls me Daddy. But it’s like, I’m not there, so it’s like she’s saying it cause we’re telling her to say it, but... does she know?”
In an extraordinary move six months ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo pardoned the 26-year-old Gambian immigrant from the Bronx for the one adult criminal conviction on his record — for robbing two gold chains from a female neighbor’s neck, which he said he didn’t do. His attorneys and the legion of activists who are supporting him thought that would pave the way for authorities to release him.
That hasn’t happened. Instead, today (July 31st) marks his third year in ICE detention. Like all ICE detainees, Ousman is jailed to ensure that he shows up for future court dates on an order of deportation for overstaying his tourist visa two decades ago. Attorneys believe he has been held by ICE longer than any other immigrant from New York City.
"I thought that [the pardon] sealed the deal for me,” Darboe said. “And I guess it really didn’t mean that much."
In a series of court decisions since the pardon, neither immigration nor federal judges have agreed to his release — even on bond.
"Black immigrants are treated differently in these court proceedings," said Sophia Gurulé, his attorney from Bronx Defenders. "For some reason they don’t value the community ties that he has, they don’t value his Black family, his Black wife, his Black baby girl."
Cuomo’s pardon was spurred by supportive letters from elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, activist organizations, and news stories. A petition circulated to demand Ousman’s release, and “Free Ousman” graffiti has been found around New York.
Immigrant advocates and attorneys following Darboe’s case say it represents the range of injustices inherent in immigration enforcement: a bias against Black immigrants, who statistically are more likely to be detained and deported than the overall immigrant population; an increase in the Trump Administration’s detention of those without documents who arrived as children, as Darboe did; and a tendency of immigration judges to side with the Trump Administration.
At the time of the pardon, Cuomo senior advisor Rich Azzopardi said, "Our justice system is based on the concepts of redemption and rehabilitation. Mr. Darboe served his sentence and a federal government carrying out a politicized deportation policy is not acting in the interest of justice."
After the pardon, with his sole criminal conviction wiped off his record, Darboe filed a motion with the Board Of Immigration Appeals to reopen his case. That was denied. An appeal is pending.
His legal team also filed a habeas corpus lawsuit in federal court to have him let out because of the threat of COVID-19 -- the first ICE detainee in the country to test positive for the coronavirus was at the Bergen County Jail. Darboe lost that case, too, but attorneys are now filing a second federal lawsuit demanding his release based on his extraordinary length of time in jail.
In May, Gurulé sought to at least have bond set, so Darboe could fight his case from the outside. At the bond hearing, Immigration Judge Charles Conroy acknowledged Darboe is basically an American. Darboe’s parents and siblings, including one serving in the Marines, are all permanent residents or citizens.
"Socially, culturally, emotionally, he’s American," Conroy said. He added that he was sympathetic to Darboe’s case, since the judge himself was also brought to the country as a child and didn’t become a citizen until he was 18.
Yet exactly because of Darboe’s "strong ties to the United States," Conroy said that Darboe posed a "very serious flight risk" and was “very unlikely” to show up to future court dates. So Conroy denied bond.
“[Immigration officials] see a Black man coming from a poor neighborhood who has a criminal history, and they find you as a threat, they find as a danger to the community,” Darboe said. “It’s hard being Black already in America but being an immigrant on top of that? That’s extra for them.”
A rally via Zoom was planned for Darboe today at noon.
"This is a participatory defense campaign, it’s not just a legal campaign," Gurulé said. "It’s a community of people saying we are not going to allow you to throw this person away... People get his story. When you fight for someone like Ousman Darboe, you fight for everyone."
Ousman appears to be a reluctant but willing symbol of that campaign: “If it takes me for them to shine a light on what really goes on, then so be it.”
Darboe describes a hard upbringing. He didn’t speak English when he arrived in the Bronx from Gambia at the age of 6, and he faced bullying for being an outsider. He had extensive contact with law enforcement, mostly as a juvenile: He stole a purse, saying he needed money for a book bag and school supplies; he was charged with marijuana possession during a stop-and-frisk; and he stole a cellphone, which landed him at Rikers Island, where he spent months in solitary confinement for fighting.
His one charge as an adult for robbing gold chains is what put him in ICE’s cross-hairs. Police never found the chains on him, but he was identified in a line-up, and sent back to Rikers Island. To get out, he said, he pleaded guilty and was released on time served.
With a criminal record but without documentation, Darboe became a priority for ICE. He was arrested and sent to the Hudson County Corrections and Rehabilitation Facility, where he spent a year. While at the jail he married his long-time girlfriend, Lashalle Poston, and was able to hold his daughter during two visits.
Then he was moved to the Bergen County Jail, which, like the Hudson jail, contracts with ICE to detain immigrants. He makes $14 every two weeks as the “house man” for his unit. In that role he cleans tables and sanitizes phones, and talks to officers about issues -- like how the air conditioning stopped working during the recent heat wave. “You wake up like someone poured a bucket of water on you,” he said. “And there’s no windows in the cells. You’re just compacted in a room with four walls and a vent, no air coming in or out, so you’re just stuck.”
Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton denied that the air conditioning stopped working, contradicting ICE’s assertion to Gothamist/WNYC that the system had indeed failed in some units there last week. Regardless, conditions at the county jail have stressed Darboe: There was a mumps outbreak last summer, and outdoor space is limited to a room with a fenced opening. (Darboe said that room has been closed during the pandemic, which jail officials denied).
Most significantly, unlike other ICE facilities in the region, only detainees with certain ICE "classifications" are allowed to touch their loved ones who visit. Darboe, despite his role as a “house man,” lacks this classification. “So you’ve been having him do all this work and have all this extra responsibility but you won’t let him hug his daughter and wife?” Gurulé asked.
To pass the time, Darboe, who is Muslim, prays five times a day. He likes self-help books and is currently reading “Midnight” by Sister Souljah, about a Black Sudanese Muslim immigrant in Brooklyn. And, he said, he’s “planning for the future.”
He said he misses “going outside and walking whatever distance I want to, having the choice of food I want to, being around my loved ones, having a phone in your pocket — the little stuff in life.”