America, in people’s imagination everywhere, is the land of the free. So it was for the French artist who devised the Statue of Liberty, so it is for Russian anti-Putin activists whose fate took a turn for the worse when Putin decided to invade Ukraine. They believed America would welcome them. How wrong they were, as the New York Times documented in a recent article: Antiwar Activists Who Flee Russia Find Detention, Not Freedom, in the U.S.
Pursued by the authorities, their online accounts blocked, with participation in street protests leading to arrests and risking – with Putin’s new harsh laws – up to 15 years of detention, numerous anti-war activists decided to flee. 2022 so far has witnessed the biggest exodus from Russia; by July, it had officially become a brain drain, with thousands of young scientists, doctors, artists, journalists, IT workers leaving the Russian homeland.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, anti-Putin activists had left Russia, seeking refuge in the United States. But the outflow became an outpour, starting in March after the war began, reaching this year the highest ever level in recent history: So far, according to the New York Times, in the 2022 fiscal year, 21,763 Russians were processed by U.S. authorities at the southern border, compared with 467 in 2020. In October alone, 3,879 came.
But things turned ugly for the Russians very quickly. By mid-March, there were already reports that Russian asylum seekers were blocked at the southern border while Ukrainians were admitted.
Indeed, Russian anti-Putin activists appear to have misjudged their welcome in America – possibly encountering two kinds of pushbacks from Americans:
(1) the enduring remnants of strong feelings of anti-communism that are still widespread in the US; and
(2) a belief that Putin is sending “assets” (read: spies) to the US in the guise of asylum seekers because he is in fact waging a war not just against Ukraine but the whole West and America in particular – something Putin’s pal and guru, Alexander Dugin, the infamous ideologist of Eurasianism and similar Russian extremists are rooting for and that Putin lately is asserting in his own propaganda to Russians.
As documented by the New York Times, it appears that more Russians are arrested when they cross the border from Mexico into the United States than people from any other country.
“Proportionately, compared to people from other countries, there are more Russians being sent to detention,” Svetlana Kaff, a San Francisco-based immigration lawyer, told the New York Times. She is one of several lawyers working regularly with migrants and she says she has been recently flooded with requests for help.
ICE: How it works and why human rights activists are protesting
ICE, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security does not release statistics on the nationalities of migrants held in detention camps. So for information, we can only rely on investigative journalism like the New York Times here, reporting what the community of American immigration lawyers has found in their work in defense of asylum seekers.
Unsurprisingly, ICE refused to comment and limited itself to telling the New York Times that the agency was “firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody” and regularly reviews its detention operations to make sure that noncitizens “are treated humanely, protected from harm, provided appropriate medical and mental health care and receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled.”
In fact, like so many public services in America, ICE has outsourced the running of detention camps for asylum seekers to the private sector – whose goals are, as everyone knows, the maximization of profits and not the provision of the best possible public service.
GEO Group, the private company that operates a network of immigration detention centers, including the ones in Louisiana where many Russians are detained, said its facilities “provide round-the-clock access to medical care, a legal orientation program and free telephone calls to lawyers.”
Interestingly, the GEO Group presents itself very convincingly as a socially aware and ESG-conscious organization: It has just issued its fourth annual Human Rights and ESG Report. And on its website, it explains that it is “a leading diversified government service provider, specializing in design, financing, development, and support services for secure facilities, processing centers, and community reentry centers” in the United States but also in Australia and South Africa.
So, according to GEO, we are dealing here with “secure facilities” and “community reentry centers” which all sound very nice. But human rights activists beg to differ. For a long time, they have documented the prolonged confinement, medical negligence, and mistreatment of immigrant detainees, especially those housed in for-profit contract facilities like the ones run by the GEO group.
For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently documented 13 cases of torture, physical or sexual abuse, or assault of deported people by state agents in detention. In this case, the focus was on the estimated 80 to 90 Cameroonians deported on two flights in October and November 2020 – reporting on what happened both in the US and afterward when they were back in the country.
The flights went ahead despite the Covid-19 pandemic, allegations of ICE abuses, and the protests of scores of activists, lawyers, and US Congress members. This continued until Trump’s last days in office, with ICE deporting at least one Cameroonian in January 2021. After a pause during most of 2021, the Biden administration deported several people to Cameroon in October 2021.
The HRW investigation provided evidence that the US authorities not only sent Cameroonians back to harm, but also subjected them to serious human rights violations in US immigration detention centers, failed to fairly adjudicate many of their cases, and failed to protect confidential asylum documents, which were confiscated by their government. And it wrily concludes: “For these reasons, US deportations of Cameroonian asylum seekers violated US obligations under international human rights and refugee law.”
What happened to those Cameroonians is extreme, but Russian asylum-seekers also have good reasons to complain as documented in the aforementioned New York Times article. They too were “at the mercy of guards who treat[ed] them with indifference and, not infrequently, hostility.”
Russian asylum seekers: Driven by hope, they face numerous obstacles
The Times article is focused on the tragic story of Mariia Shemiatina and Boris Shevchuk, a couple of young doctors, husband and wife, who upon crossing the border from Mexico in April were arrested and spent six months in detention in Louisiana in two separate centers, with the wife ultimately falling ill, unconscious in her room and having seizures. She was hospitalized and ended up with her left side paralyzed. She’s lost thirty pounds while in detention.
Meanwhile, they faced absurdly high bond requests, $15,000 each – a sum that was impossible for them to put together. On Oct. 28, ICE agreed to lower the bond for the couple to $10,000 each — money they still did not have.
Ultimately they were helped by friends. Among them, Mr. Balashov, a Russian dissident Boris Shevchuk had met at the border who paid for Mariia’s bond, and Dan Gashler, a history professor at the State University of New York in Delhi and a volunteer for Freedom for Immigrants, which aids detained immigrants. Mr. Gashler organized a fund-raiser to pay for Boris’ bond and fly the couple to New York.
“These are incredible young people who fled because of their opposition to the regime,” he said, “and fell victim to our broken asylum process.”
On Nov. 8, Ms. Shemiatina, with her lawyer at the wheel of a minivan, went for a three-hour drive to be finally reunited with her husband at the other detention center, in Pine Prairie. “I’m more happy than on my wedding day,” she said to her lawyer.
Other cases were also reported by the Times in the same article:
- Olga Nikitina, 33, who fled Russia with her husband after he was imprisoned there multiple times, spent five months in the same detention center as Mariia Shemiatina. “The whole time I was there, they treated us like garbage,” she said. “I called hotlines, but it did not help in any way.”
- Aleksandr Balashov, 33, Olga’s husband, was detained for four months at a facility in Batavia, N.Y., where he says officers told him and others that they had no rights because they had entered the country illegally.
- Ivan Sokolovski, 25, another activist, after being held at Pine Prairie detention center for seven months lost his asylum case and said he now fears that he will be deported to his death. “It would have been more humane to be shot dead at the border than to be held in prison so long,” he said.
Over a thousand people commented the article – harsh comments, angry comments but also among them, some reasonable voices, for example, from Robert Tichell (Buffalo, NY) deploring the American border protection policies and implicitly calling for reform:
Every single US taxpayer is supporting this policy of unnecessary detention. We have signed contracts with for-profit prisons guaranteeing them a certain number of filled beds. We spend obscene amounts of money on immigration enforcement. Each detainee costs American taxpayers $133-200 per day of detention. It’s a gross waste of our tax dollars on a made-up fear of the other.
The Biden administration has a serious culture problem at the Department of Homeland Security and no one will fix it. […]There is no will in this administration to meaningfully address the culture problem that seeks to punish asylum seekers under a misguided belief that this will prevent future asylum seekers.
Most Americans probably would like to see a reformed and fair asylum system in place. But whether Biden can reform anything over the next two years now that his party has only partial control over Congress is anyone’s guess. And in its first two years, one thing is certain: The Biden administration has shown little interest in reform.
Editors Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — Featured Photo: Barbed wire. Featured Photo Credit: Pixabay.