Siham Byah called her experience at the Bristol County House of Correction “the Hannibal Lecter treatment” in a letter she wrote to her attorney and friends during the early morning hours of Monday, Nov 20. In an attempt to deport Byah, 40, a US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer began packing her things into two trash bags at 2:45 am.
Byah is a single mother and outspoken political activist from Morocco living in Nahant. She was detained by ICE on Nov 7 during a routine immigration check-in.
“I got no answer to where I’m going, or why,” Byah wrote of the experience. Eventually told she was being moved from Bristol to the South Bay House of Correction in Boston, she was transported in what she called “the cage.”
“At 5am,” Byah wrote, “I got the Hannibal Lecter treatment AGAIN. Cuffs, shackles, and the works. This time, I wasn’t so shocked really; still feeling humiliated and dehumanized … but no shocked. Aren’t these the same people who locked me into solitary with no heat, denied me attorney contact, family contact, finding out Naseem’s [Byah’s 8-year-old son’s] whereabouts, meds, and heat, all because I exercised my right to enter a hunger strike?”
She spent the duration of the day in a cell and at 10:40 pm was led across the jail’s basketball court to another office, where several guards and a lieutenant were waiting. Byah again asked about where she was going and reported she was told, “To NYC, where we’re going to put you on a plane and watch you go home.”
Byah replied that her home was in Nahant, Mass, and that she was trying to “invoke the credible fear clause” to her asylum claim.
“They [guards] said to her, ‘We are going to issue a passport for your kid so that you can take him back to Morocco,’” Byah’s partner told DigBoston.
Byah eventually refused to get into the transport van to Logan Airport, where she would have been taken to New York City to board a nonstop flight to Morocco. But refusing federal officers is no easy task. One missed call to her attorney was all she got.
At one point, the guards separated to confer. Byah reported that the one officer who remained gave her sound advice: “I cannot tell you this when [other officers] are here, but continue to refuse and face a judge here—it is safer. I’m not particularly enjoying my job tonight.” She continued to decline the transport, thanking the officers when they gave up.
“The lieutenant went to get me new jail clothes, while an officer took me to a large, clean holding cell (unlocked) to wait for him,” she wrote in one letter. As Byah held photos of her son and partner, she thought about how close she had been to getting deported.
She was taken back to the Bristol County House of Correction, where Byah eventually got in contact with her attorney, Matt Cameron.
“Siham resisted deportation, and insisted on her right to a screening interview with an asylum officer to explain her fear of return to Morocco,” Cameron told DigBoston. Her attorney is hoping to acquire a “reasonable fear” screening for Byah, who has applied for political asylum. The interview, conducted by an immigration official, is often granted to immigrants who are seeking asylum due to political retribution. In cases where someone’s life is at risk, asylum can be granted.
“Siham Byah’s removal is currently pending,” one ICE official told DigBoston. “For operational security reasons, ICE will not discuss the specific times and dates of any removal.”
As Byah recounted in a 2012 YouTube video, the Moroccan Secret Service court martialed her for treason in 2011 to 2012 and reportedly threatened her for speaking out against human rights violations committed by the ruling Justice and Development Party of Morocco, and Morocco’s current King. Morocco currently prohibits all speech deemed to offend the king.
“I was threatened with rape and that they would rape my two-year-old,” Byah said in the video. “This is how low [the Moroccan government is] willing to stoop.”
“It seems like the Moroccan government wants her back,” said Cameron. Due to pending litigation, he could not go further into his concerns other than to mention that Byah was not the first Moroccan immigrant with similar political ideals to be pursued in New England.
Byah was arrested on an outstanding final order of deportation issued by an immigration judge in 2012, according to ICE. Her one conviction resulted in a fine for a traffic violation. In an odd turn of events, local ICE officials have said that the order for Byah’s removal did not come from the Massachusetts office, but the DC headquarters for ICE.
Byah has applied for multiple stays of removal, along with a motion to reopen her case, since her appeal to the US Board of Immigration was denied in 2013. The norm became checking in once a year for multiple stays of removal. Until now. ICE policies under President Donald Trump have changed protocols completely. Nationally, it has become commonplace for immigrants without criminal records to be detained at ICE check-ins or court hearings.
Meanwhile, thousands of immigrants around the country await their fates and deal with day-to-day lives of detainment. By day 14 in custody, Byah was getting her period, and alleges she was denied tampons and could not shower due to lack of soap.
When asked about what hygienic materials are provided to detainees, a senior ICE official sent an online copy of a 2011 Operations Manual, which states, “Female detainees shall be issued and may retain sufficient feminine hygiene items, including sanitary pads or tampons, for use during the menstrual cycle.”
Byah alleges in her letters that she didn’t receive soap to wash her hands after a urine test, and was unable to shower and wash multiple times. Her grievances went beyond hygiene. In one note, Byah wrote, “And according to the ID they issued me, I am a Hispanic female, much much taller than I actually am, weighing 20 lbs less than I actually do with jet black hair and jet black eyes.”
This is not the first time that the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office has been at the center of controversy. Among other things, Bristol Sheriff Thomas Hodgson has made headlines for denying visitation rights to families of inmates, while last January he proposed sending his inmates to the southern border of the US to help build President Trump’s wall.
Sarah is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal.