Johan Barrios Ramos finally succeeded in fleeing Cuba in December, 2016. He had been imprisoned and beaten for his involvement with an opposition political party there, but it took him several attempts to flee the country and weeks spent in hiding before he made it to Mexico and ultimately to the U.S. border. When he presented himself to U.S. authorities and requested asylum, he was sent to the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility at Batavia, in upstate New York. Once there he was interviewed by an asylum officer, to determine if he had a significant possibility of winning asylum.
The officer determined that he did. But then came the bad news: ICE was no longer releasing asylum seekers on parole, even if they could prove their identity and that they would continue to show up at their court dates if released.
It would take eight more months, and Mr. Barrios Ramos’s inclusion in a class-action lawsuit filed by the NYCLU, Abdi v. Sessions, for him to be released on parole.
The Federal Detention Facility at Batavia is the largest immigration detention facility in New York. When I went there in September to interview class members in our lawsuit, the incongruity struck me as surreal: tucked away on the edge of this small upstate town, surrounded by dairies and wheat fields, was a jail housing asylum seekers from all over the world.
Mr. Barrios Ramos hated it there. “The anxiety that I felt while incarcerated in Cuba has gotten worse because being locked up reminds me of what happened to me in Cuba,” he told us in August. All around him, men who fled horrific trauma in their home countries were struggling with what happened to them thousands of miles away and wondering why the U.S. government, from whom they had sought protection, was keeping them in jail. Many had no money for a lawyer; for those who did, it was still all but impossible to help prepare an asylum case from inside the jail, where international calls cost several dollars a minute and detainees have no internet access.
Statistics show that getting released on parole doubles the chances of winning asylum. Another detainee, Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed, who fled Somalia after his father, brother and wife were murdered in a bomb attack, told me when I visited, “I believe that if I were released, I could win asylum but in here, I am not sure.”
Parole is the only way for asylum seekers who present themselves at a U.S. border or airport to get out of ICE detention, because the government takes the position that they are not eligible to have a bond set by an immigration judge. But under the Trump administration, ICE has all but stopped granting parole—in violation of their stated policy. Like Mr. Barrios Ramos, detainees who asked about parole after the January inauguration were told it was unavailable. Mr. Ahmed’s immigration officer told him, “there is a new president now and everything is stopped…. I guarantee they will deny you.”
The NYCLU filed our case in federal district court in Rochester on behalf of Mr. Barrios Ramos and all the asylum seekers at Batavia who have been denied release on parole or on bond. The lawsuit demands that ICE comply with its parole policy, which requires that asylum seekers be told about parole and how to request it and sets forth criteria for their release—a policy that the government assured the Supreme Court it was following just last week. The lawsuit also asks ICE to grant bond hearings to asylum seekers who have been at Batavia for six months or more. A hearing on our motion for preliminary injunction is scheduled for October 27.
Mr. Barrios Ramos and the other named plaintiff in the case, Hanad Abdi, were released shortly after the lawsuit was filed. But dozens of other asylum seekers remain detained at the remote federal detention facility in Batavia.
With the parole policy stopped, one said, "I feel like I am stranded here." The difficulty of preparing a successful asylum case in detention makes the consequences particularly grave. Another asylum seeker concluded my visit with him by saying, “I thank you for trying to save our lives.”