Asylum Seekers Protest Detention with Hunger-Strike: Complaints Included Length of Detention, Unfair DHS Parole Policies, and Jail-like Conditions
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Asylum seekers at the 200-bed immigration detention center in Queens, New York recently engaged in a hunger-strike to protest a range of concerns relating to their detention. The asylum seekers are detained at the direction of the Department of Homeland Security (formerly the INS) at a facility run by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, under a DHS contract. Among the concerns raised by asylum seekers and other immigration detainees was the length of detention, the lack of fair DHS parole practices, and the jail-like conditions of their detention.
Two of these detainees, Viktor Odnovyun and Oleksiy Galushka, have each been detained for a total of over 3 years and 9 months by the INS and now the Department of Homeland Security, despite the fact that an immigration judge has granted them withholding of removal under the Convention Against Torture. DHS has refused to parole them while it appeals the immigration judge’s decision, even though their parole applications are supported by 28 letters of support from their employers, friends, and fellow parishioners in Pennsylvania and even though the two men appeared for all immigration proceedings when they had been previously paroled.
The Wackenhut Hunger-Strike
Asylum seekers who arrive at U.S. airports without proper documents are detained upon their arrival. Once they pass a screening interview, asylum seekers are eligible to be paroled if they satisfy certain INS, now DHS, criteria – criteria which includes community ties, no risk to the community, and that identity can be established. But even asylum seekers who meet these criteria continue to be detained, as documented in several reports issued by Human Rights First.
Read Refugee Women at Risk
and Refugees Behind Bars
On Tuesday, October 21, some detainees at the Wackenhut facility in Queens began refusing to eat meals. According to detainee reports, all male detainees began refusing meals on Wednesday, October 22 and most began eating again during the following week, although at least two detainees only began eating again on November 2nd.
Detainees reported that they were protesting a range of DHS detention issues, including:
Two Men Detained for Nearly 4 Years
- Detention of arriving asylum seekers with no criminal backgrounds
- Lack of automatic, timely, independent review of the need to detain each individual
- Lack of DHS parole grants even when detainees meet all stated parole criteria and submit requests with full support, including proof of community ties
- DHS refusal to release individuals who are granted withholding of removal relief under the Convention Against Torture or Refugee Convention
- The absence of any hope for release while detainees exercise their due process right to appeal to the BIA and federal court, and the one-sentence denials now routinely issued by the BIA
- Conditions of detention, including jail-like uniforms, inadequate food, exorbitant phone costs, no meaningful access to fresh air, no privacy in dorms for bathroom and phone use, and no privacy in visitation with family and friends
Viktor Odnovyun and Oleksiy Galushka have been detained for a total of three years and nine months – first at the Wackenhut facility, then at York County Prison in Pennsylvania, and now after a period of parole, at the Wackenhut detention facility again. They are represented pro bono by volunteer attorneys through Human Rights First’s pro bono asylum representation program.
The two arrived in the U.S. in March 1999, seeking asylum from their native Ukraine where they were persecuted by the police, security forces, and government-sanctioned vigilantes due to their activism in non-governmental organizations and the political opinions attributed to them as a result of their activism. They were detained on arrival at the airport because although they were traveling on their own Ukrainian passports, they lacked visas for entry to the U.S. They passed their credible fear screening interviews but continued to be detained – first at Wackenhut and then at York County Prison. In September 1999, an immigration judge granted them withholding of removal but denied them asylum because he believed they had the right to reside in Argentina. After a series of appeals, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit remanded their cases, as part of a settlement agreement, in connection with which the INS agreed to release the two men on parole while their remand proceedings continued.
As a result, in late August 2002, after over three years in INS detention, Viktor and Oleksiy were finally released from jail on parole and settled in York, Pennsylvania, where they had built up extensive community ties during their period of detention at York County Prison. Oleksiy volunteered at York Hospital, while Viktor volunteered his time to International Friendship House, the home for released asylum seekers where the two had resided immediately following their release from detention, as well as to the Orthodox Church of which they are active members. Once they obtained work authorization, both men found employment at a local restaurant. Viktor was able to start sending money home for the medical care of his teenage son, who has been battling cancer in the Ukraine.
Their cases were remanded to the Immigration Judge for new proceedings, so the two men drove from Pennsylvania to attend their immigration court hearings at the Wackenhut facility, appearing with their attorneys as they had promised to do when released on parole. On June 17, 2003, they attended their final hearing, fully expecting to return to their home and to their jobs at the conclusion of the hearing. At the time, both men had additional job offers pending: Oleksiy from the hospital where he had volunteered, and Viktor from a medical supply firm.
The Immigration Judge granted both men withholding of removal under the Convention Against Torture. The DHS (ICE) Trial Attorney announced that she would appeal this grant of relief, and directed that both men be re-detained. They were both detained on the spot. Their attorneys had to move their car into long-term parking at JFK Airport until friends from Pennsylvania could come retrieve it.
Their pro bono attorneys filed a new parole application – supported by 28 letters of support from their employers, friends, and fellow parishioners in Pennsylvania. The New York DHS (ICE) denied the parole application in late September 2003 in a letter that referred to the two men collectively as "she." As grounds for the denial, the form letter stated: "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." The letter ignored the fact that Viktor and Oleksiy, when previously released on parole, had in fact appeared for ALL immigration hearings as required by the immigration service. A request to DHS for reconsideration of the parole denials was recently denied.
Both Viktor and Oleksiy participated in the hunger-strike at Wackenhut. They resumed eating on Saturday, November 1 after losing about 20 pounds each.
Urge the U.S. to improve its detention practices and to parole Viktor and Oleksiy!
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