We arrived in the United States in March 1999, seeking asylum from our native Ukraine where we were persecuted by the police, security forces, and government-sanctioned vigilantes due to our activism in non-governmental organizations. When we arrived in the United States, we were detained upon arrival at the airport because although we were traveling on our own Ukrainian passports, we lacked visas for entry to the United States. We were detained first at the Wackenhut detention facility in Jamaica, Queens, then at York County Prison, and then again at the Wackenhut facility. In all, we remained behind bars for more than four years.
During our time in detention, we met with a representative of Human Rights First and received a team of pro bono lawyers who have continued to support us as attorneys and as advocates throughout our asylum cases.
In September 1999, an immigration judge granted us withholding of removal, but denied us asylum because he believed we had the right to reside in Argentina. After waiting through a long series of appeals, we learned that the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had remanded our cases back to the Immigration Court, as part of a settlement agreement in which the INS agreed to release us on parole while our remand proceedings continued. As a result, in late August 2002, after over three years of detention, we were released from jail on parole.
We settled in the town of York, Pennsylvania, where we had already made many friends and community ties during our time at the York County Prison. Both of us volunteered our time to the community – Oleksiy at York Hospital, and Viktor at the International Friendship House, a home for released asylum seekers where we had resided immediately after our release. Once we were granted work authorization, we both began working at a local restaurant. Viktor was finally able to start sending money home for the care of his teenage son, who has been battling cancer in Ukraine.
We drove from Pennsylvania to attend our immigration court hearings, which were held at the Wackenhut facility, appearing with our attorneys as we had promised to do. We attended our final hearing on June 17, 2003, expecting that after the hearing we would return to York, to our homes and our jobs. At the end of the hearing, the immigration judge granted us withholding of removal under the Convention Against Torture. The attorney for the government, however, announced that she would appeal this grant of relief, and we were both re-detained right there on the spot. Our attorneys had to move our car into long-term parking at JFK Airport until friends from Pennsylvania could come to get it.
Our attorneys re-doubled their efforts, and filed a new parole application – supported by 28 of our wonderful supporters in York, Pennsylvania, including employers, friends, and fellow parishioners. The New York Department of Homeland Security denied our parole application in late September 2003, in a letter in which we were collectively referred to as “she.” To quote, the letter said: “Based on the particular facts of your client’s case, including manner of entry, ICE cannot be assured that she will appear for immigration hearings or other matters as required.” This letter ignored the fact that we had appeared for all of our immigration hearings, as required by the immigration service.
In October 2003, we participated in a hunger strike at the Wackenhut detention facility, in which we each lost approximately twenty pounds. Finally, as the result of our lawyers’ steadfast persistence, we were granted parole in March 2004. We returned together to York, Pennsylvania, where we are living with a family who we call our “adopted American family.” We have both continued our work in York and, along with our lawyers, are awaiting the result of our case, which is pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals.