On a sweltering afternoon in the heart of bustling downtown Monrovia, Moriba Kamara’s bony, chafed hands shake as he talks about his months inside a Liberian maximum-security prison. “I didn’t sleep. I was always afraid.” He feared he would not make it out alive and was constantly thinking, “Maybe this is the place [I’ll] be taken to be assassinated.”

Kamara’s eyes well up as he remembers how “the whole day we [were] locked up, the whole night we [were] locked up. We had no access to go to recreation, nothing.” He and his fellow prisoners were forced to defecate in a bucket inside their cell, which often overflowed. “I got dysentery,” he recalls. “I tried to talk to the prison director to take me to the hospital, but they said no.”

Kamara was one of twenty-two deportees expelled from the United States to Liberia in December 2008 by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Some had served time in US jails for minor offenses. Others, like Kamara, had committed no crime. But for reasons that were unclear to them, all were labeled a security threat upon arriving in Liberia’s capital city. Bedraggled and weak after spending months in immigration detention followed by a long flight to Monrovia during which they were shackled, the deportees were forced onto a bus headed for Zwedru National Corrections Palace, an imposing, isolated structure that is home to convicted murderers, rapists and, occasionally, US deportees.

Zwedru is only 184 miles from Monrovia, but the trip can take days on the unpaved and sometimes hazardous roads. Along the way, “we stopped in every city, whether small or big,” remembers deportee Bill Passawe. “People booed at the vehicle. People screamed ‘criminals coming from America’ and stuff like that.” The public display was meant to show Liberians that their government was taking action to protect them from this group of convicts. But “we really didn’t have no clue why we were in jail,” says Sandra Komai, another deportee who had been jailed in the United States on minor drug charges. “When I left Liberia, I was a small child. I had committed no crime in Liberia.”

Kamara, too, left Liberia as a child, fleeing after his father was murdered by rebels during the civil war. He crossed into neighboring Guinea, only to face years of persecution — jailings and beatings — because he came from the Mandingo ethnic group, which had allegedly backed Liberia’s dictator, Samuel Doe. In 2007 he decided to seek asylum in the United States. Arriving in New Jersey, he was immediately imprisoned at the Elizabeth Detention Center. “It is better for me to be in detention until my death,” he remembers telling officials there. “I can’t be deported to Liberia.”

Kamara is only one of 359,795 people who were deported by the United States in 2008. The number has gone up. For all the rhetoric — particularly on the right — about cracking down on illegal immigration, Americans know relatively little about why people are deported or how. Rarely does anyone question what happens to deportees once they leave.

The numbers tell only part of the story. In 2002, when the Bush administration began to use deportation as a national security tool, 165,168 people were deported. (The Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part, was established that year.) In 2009, Obama’s first year in office, deportations peaked at 395,165. In 2010, 387,242 people were removed, the equivalent of deporting almost the entire city of Oakland, California. It is anticipated that figures for 2011 will top 400,000, bringing Obama’s deportation tally to more than 1 million people during his three years in office.

The number of Liberians the United States deports each year is relatively small. Twenty-six were deported in 2008. In 2009 forty people were sent back, and in 2010 the number went down to sixteen. This pales in comparison with the 21,421 Filipinos, 4,417 Ukrainians or 3,951 Burmese deported in 2010 alone. Yet the smaller number of Liberian deportees virtually guarantees that their harsh treatment will go unnoticed. Although Liberia’s mandatory jailing of deportees appears to have ceased after 2008, the experience of Kamara and his fellow prisoners raises troubling questions about a deportation agenda that has been wholly embraced by the Obama White House. Hundreds of thousands of people are labeled criminals and expelled every year; what becomes of them on the other side?

In Liberia, US deportees are still a public target. When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke at Harvard University, her alma mater, last spring, she described US deportees as one of the “challenges” facing her country. “Our stability is threatened by the thousands of returnees from US prisons,” she said. Although she went on to discuss Liberia’s progress since the civil war, it was this remark that made headlines in the Liberian press.

“Ellen [Sirleaf] has said…that deportees from the US are to blame for most of the armed robberies that have taken place in the country and that deportees are responsible for the high crime rate in Monrovia,” says Garmonyou Wilson, a reporter for the Liberian newspaper theInquirer.

This perception has made men like Kamara pariahs in Monrovia. With employment opportunities scarce, no one wants to hire a man the United States deported, let alone one who served time in a Liberian maximum-security prison. “My life now is a living hell,” he says. “I have no family here, no job, no place to live. Everyone thinks I’m a vicious criminal.”

Could Liberia have rejected the planeload of deportees in 2008? It tried.

Under Bush, ICE had first attempted to deport them in September of that year, but it was told by the Sirleaf administration that Liberia would not accept them. Already on board a flight bound for Monrovia, Bill Passawe and the others were taken off the plane, still in shackles, and sent back to jail in Louisiana. It is unclear what negotiations took place — neither ICE nor Liberian officials wished to comment — but on December 2, 2008, the flight took off, with the blessing of the Liberian government.

According to Eric Mullbah, director of prisons in the Ministry of Justice, part of the reluctance likely had to do with the Liberian government being told that “twenty-two hard-core criminals are being returned.” ICE denies using the label “hard-core,” but regardless of the word choice, hearing of the detainees’ impending arrival put local officials in a bind. Such news “filters into our community,” says Mullbah, with many Liberians asking, “Hey, are they going to bring ten armed robbers, and gangsters, and just throw them into the community?”

Given such concerns, Mullbah described the decision to imprison Kamara and his fellow deportees as “prudent.” In a press conference, Chris Massaquoi, commissioner of the Liberian Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, called it a “security measure.”

“Understand that Liberia is evolving from war,” Mullbah says, citing challenges that are more pressing than the reintegration of a few dozen citizens expelled from another country.

Liberia is not alone in its harsh treatment of deportees arriving from the United States, nor are its politicians and press alone in scapegoating them. In Haiti, El Salvador, Nigeria and the Dominican Republic, deportees have been routinely jailed. In the Dominican Republic, which received 753 people in 2010, the media report all arrivals, often focusing on the fact that the deportees have previously been imprisoned in the United States. In a 2002 investigation by the Dominican newspaper Listin Diario, authorities responsible for accepting and reintegrating deportees admitted that they were given very little information about each person aside from his or her criminal conviction. Dominican authorities, like the Liberian government, claim their actions toward deportees are simply to protect their population.

In Haiti the only way a deportee can avoid months or even years of incarceration upon arrival is if a family member successfully applies for his or her release. But most Haitian deportees do not have immediate family in Haiti. And if conditions were horrific before the 2010 earthquake, “in post-earthquake Haiti, detention conditions are even more dire,” according to Michelle Karshan, director of Alternative Chance, an NGO that helps Haitian deportees. Although the Obama administration announced that it would suspend deportations to Haiti immediately following the disaster, less than twelve months later, amid sluggish rebuilding and widespread deaths from cholera, deportations resumed. In the first year after the earthquake, more than 300 Haitian deportees were put into putrid police-station holding cells because the Haitian government believed them to be dangerous.

According to Daniel Kanstroom, director of the International Human Rights Program at Boston College Law School, there is a “widespread misperception that deportees are hard-core criminals,” something he says is simply not true. Under the Secure Communities program, instituted by the Bush administration and expanded by Obama, noncitizens serving jail time for “aggravated felony” offenses are being funneled into removal proceedings with little chance of being allowed to stay in the United States after serving their sentences.

“Recent research has shown…the majority [of deportees] are people who have violated drug laws or other nonviolent offenders,” says Kanstroom. “Before the Supreme Court corrected ICE in a series of cases, many thousands were deported for simple drug possession. Many people convicted of misdemeanors were also deported.” Information obtained by the National Day Laborer Organization, Center for Constitutional Rights and the Cardozo School of Law shows clearly that of those deported through Secure Communities, close to 80 percent had no criminal conviction or were guilty only of traffic violations or other low-level offenses.

“Most people just believe that those who are deported are bad, or dangerous criminals, or must have broken laws and so they deserve to be deported,” says Michele McKenzie, advocacy director at The Advocates for Human Rights, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit. “This is so far from the truth.”

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information on why the twenty-two Liberians in Kamara’s group were deported, ICE divulged that five of them were “non-criminal immigration violators” and the rest had been convicted of crimes ranging from drugs to robbery, to sex offenses and fraudulent activities. But it is clear that they were not “hard-core criminals.”

Sandra Komai, for example, who spent her youth in the United States and said she did two stints in prison for drug possession, was arrested years after serving her sentences. She had been renewing her immigration papers when her record popped up in the system. Despite having done her time — for nonviolent crimes — she was detained and deported to a country she barely remembered. At the Zwedru prison, she was terrified of “snakes and lizards” and felt regularly humiliated as a woman alone among male guards and prisoners.

Citing “operational security,” ICE refused to comment on other allegations related to the conditions of the deportation flight, a twenty-four-hour ordeal from Louisiana to Puerto Rico to Cape Verde to Monrovia. Bill Passawe says the deportees were not even unshackled to use the restroom, and were forced to rely on ICE agents to unzip their pants for them. ICE spokesman Temple Black conceded that “ICE regularly uses restraints when transporting detainees.” But an ICE memo available on its website states that “instruments of restraint shall be used only as a precaution against escape during transfer.”

Amy Gottlieb, immigration attorney at the American Friends Service Committee, has heard many stories over the years of ICE’s “overuse” of restraints; she concludes that it seems to be “standard practice.”

It’s a measure of the extent to which undocumented immigrants have been criminalized. “The notion that any person that is unauthorized in the US is a criminal has taken root,” says Donald Kerwin of the Migration Policy Institute, a DC-based think tank. “You don’t just find this on cable TV and talk-radio; you find it in state legislation.” In this climate even asylum seekers like Kamara, who flee persecution and enter the United States without a visa, become criminals.

“There are deep concerns about the human rights issues raised by falsely labeling innocent people as hard-core criminals and then dumping them with this label in another country,” says Kerwin.

ICE maintains that any questions about the treatment of deportees in Liberia can be answered only by the Liberian government. But human rights experts see the United States as partly responsible. Professor Helen Stacy, director of the human rights program at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, points to a 2007 human rights report on Liberia, released by the State Department months before ICE deported the group of twenty-two.

“Prison conditions were harsh and in some cases life threatening,” the report reads. “Women and juveniles were subject to abuse by guards or other inmates.” In Stacy’s opinion, the deportation of noncitizens by the United States “into conditions that are known to be squalid, or unfair, or dangerous” is tantamount to “de facto extraordinary rendition.”

In the end, Kamara was released from the Zwedru prison through the efforts of a regional NGO, the Foundation for International Dignity, which fought against the prison’s dreadful conditions and petitioned the government to release the deportees. Kamara “was not sent here to be tried, so why detain him?” asks the group’s director, John Adolphus Woods.

Two years after his release, Kamara is still struggling to eke out a living in Monrovia, sleeping on the floor of an Internet cafe where he does voluntary work in exchange for a place to sleep at night.

“I’ve been running after jobs all over,” he says, “but there’s nobody to give me a job because if I go in the community people are pointing at me [and saying] ‘this is the criminal that was deported from America.’ People are afraid of me.”

Kamara says his mistake was to choose the United States as the country to flee to in pursuit of asylum and a safe place to live. “I selected America for its human rights,” he says, slumped on a pile of rubble as traffic in downtown Monrovia whizzes by. “They treated me like I was the worst kind of criminal, and all I did was ask for asylum.”

Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations and the Puffin Foundation.