Cold, isolation and torture with insomnia: the Russian - about the American immigration prison
It is probably very difficult to meet a person who would say that immigration was an easy and painless process for him. However, the story of Mikhail Nikitin (name has been changed) stands out especially from others. Mikhail, a political refugee from Russia, and his wife Lydia applied for asylum on the border of Mexico and the United States. As a result, the Russian had to spend more than a year and a half in an immigration prison, sometimes faced with inhuman conditions of detention, judicial refusals and even an attempt to forge his documents by ICE employees. Now Mikhail is at large and is awaiting the next court hearing in his case. He spoke about his experience in an exclusive interview with Forum Daily.
Russian raiders and Mexican crime
Unfortunately, Mikhail's story can hardly surprise anyone in modern Russia. In the past - a successful businessman, he claims that he faced pressure from the Russian special services, who were trying to carry out a raider seizure of his business. At some point, after unambiguous warnings from the FSB, the businessman realized that his further stay in the country would end up in prison for him. Then Mikhail made the decision to "lay low": he went to live in the village and tried not to show any activity. During this time, his bank accounts were blocked, and the businessman himself was put on the wanted list.
“I realized that if I stay in Russia further, I would end up behind bars. The worst part is that I couldn't even get a tourist visa to any of the Western countries. I still had a passport, but for a visa I needed bank statements and other documents. Since my accounts were blocked, and many of my documents remained in the office and were then seized during searches, I simply could not provide them, ”he says.
Earlier, Mikhail had a student visa to the United States, but it has already expired.
“Nevertheless, I knew this country well, spoke English, and therefore decided to try my luck here,” he explained.
The spouses had to leave Russia in secret - by car across the Belarusian border. Then, with many transfers, the couple made it to Mexico. First, Mikhail and Lydia tried to cross the border in the capital of Baja California, Mexicali.
“However, we soon realized that staying there in the literal sense of the word is life-threatening. It was a terrible place: rampant crime, constant murders, police and ambulance sirens, drug trafficking. When we tried to sign up for a queue at the border, the official began to extort a bribe from us. To be honest, I did not understand what he wanted, because I did not expect this. In the end, he suggested that we wait 3 weeks. We did not dare to wait so long in the epicenter of the criminal rampant, so we went to Tijuana, ”says Mikhail.
Immigration officers' traps
In Tijuana, the couple managed to sign up in a queue in which they had to wait for the right to cross the border for about a month. The asylum procedure at the border is absolutely legal, and the Nikitins, who applied for him, were not considered illegal immigrants or violators of the immigration regime. Nevertheless, according to American law, such applicants had to wait for their case to be considered in an immigration prison, on a par with those who tried to cross the border illegally. It is true that in some cases the immigration officers were free to release the applicants at their own discretion.
“We found a sponsor who was ready to vouch for us. However, the American customs officers did not get through to her, as they called at 10 pm. As a result, there was no talk of letting us go, ”Mikhail explained.
The spouses were placed in separate rooms at the border detention center. Mikhail found himself in a small room 3 by 15 meters.
“There were 26 of us in it, and sometimes there was not enough space even to sit down. The light never turned off. In short, it was impossible to fall asleep under these conditions. I was there for 5 days, my wife - 10. They could call for an interview at 4 or 6 o'clock in the morning after several sleepless nights. In such a state, it is generally very difficult to collect thoughts, ”the refugee recalls.
According to Mikhail, you should not rely on the help of immigration officers, on the contrary, they most often try to "set up" immigrants, forcing them to make mistakes that can then be used against them.
“The immigration officer who interviewed me said he knew Russian, and as a result, I didn't ask for an interpreter. But, as it turned out in the process, his Russian was very weak, and I had to speak English - fortunately, I knew the language quite well. When, at the end of the interview, the officer showed me the testimony recorded from my words, I discovered a huge number of factual errors. Of course, I did not sign such a text. The main rule for all immigrants is to never sign a document until you have read it. If you do not fully understand the text, try to get it translated and explained to you, ”advises Mikhail.
According to the refugee, the immigration officer himself advised him to fill out the documents in a certain way. A few months later, following these advice formed the basis of the court's decision to refuse to grant asylum.
“For example, he asked for the address of my last residence in Russia. But I was hiding in a country house, where there was no exact address. Then he said that I must definitely name anyone else, assuring that it is "irrelevant." Then, in court, it was used as an example of "inconsistencies and deception" in my story. The next version of the "inconsistency" is different interpretations by the immigration officers of my level of education. I have two higher educations of the "specialist" category, which does not exactly correspond to the modern bachelor's or master's degrees. As a result, in different instances he was “equated” in different ways. In a word, I got the impression that the goal of many immigration officers is to achieve deportation of new arrivals at any cost, ”says Mikhail.
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Prisons and stages
The refugee's sightings are not unfounded, as he arrived in the United States in February 2019, a time when former President Donald Trump's immigration policies were particularly harsh. Lydia was more fortunate - in the end, she was released on bail, allowing her to await trial at large. Mikhail was sent to the state of Mississippi, known for its harsh treatment of immigrants.
We were transported “on stage” like real prisoners - in shackles and handcuffs. I spent 8 days in Arizona, where there were 15 beds in a room of about 15 by 24 square meters. As it turned out, these were the best conditions at the entire stage. Then I got to places where there were 75 people on the same square. So, for example, it was in Louisiana, where my trial took place. I was in such conditions for 7,5 months. The main contingent there consisted of the Hispanic poor and the Indians. These are mostly uneducated people who do not know English, illiterate people, and often do not even have shoes. Most of them did not apply for asylum, but actually tried to illegally cross the border. However, no one separated us. I had to learn Spanish in order to speak with them, ”says Mikhail.
The immigrant and the warders did not have the best memories.
“They were black women in Mississippi. When we tried to talk to them, they snatched out a pepper bottle and threatened to spray us in our faces. At night, they turned on the TV at full power for the whole night, and we, being in closed cells, simply did not have the opportunity to fall asleep, ”complains Mikhail.
The Russian managed to take the previously accumulated money out of the house, and therefore he was able to hire a lawyer. Without legal assistance, as Mikhail assures, it is basically impossible to win the case.
“The responsibility to prove the persecution falls entirely on the refugees. At the same time, we are locked up in prison, in complete isolation from the outside world, without access to the Internet. How, then, can we collect evidence from our cases? This can only be done by a lawyer, ”explains the immigrant.
In a prison in Mississippi, the refugee was awaiting a second interview - on the validity of fears of persecution.
“The procedure itself, in contrast to the interview at the border, this time was carried out competently, my testimony was recorded correctly, but the conditions of detention were terrible. If you don’t have the money to buy food, you simply will not survive on prison food. In addition, breakfast was at 5 in the morning, and it was simply not enough strength to get up at this time after a half sleepless night. On the street in March 2019, it even snowed, the temperature in the cell, according to my feelings, was no more than 15 degrees Celsius, and we wore T-shirts. Against the background of this constant cold, I became very ill, but I was able to make an appointment with a doctor only after 2 weeks, when I almost recovered myself. During all this time, I was not given any medicine, not even a nasal drop, although once I physically began to choke, ”recalls Mikhail.
Courts and appeals
The Russian was interviewed on the validity of fear by telephone. He had to wait his turn, sitting on cold concrete for 3 hours. The interview itself also took several hours.
“It happened that I was shaking from the cold so much that I could not immediately pronounce the answer to the question. As a result, the officers wrote down that I "doubted" before answering. I understand that people who make up stories for shelters are unlikely to be able to repeat the fiction in such conditions. But the trouble is that even if it can be seen that you, despite all the torture, do not break down and really tell your true story, the officers still try to send everyone without exception for deportation. Then it is simply not clear, what is the point in all these checks by torture conditions? ”- Mikhail wonders.
Then the refugee had to wait for the trial for several months. While waiting, the Russian tried several times to secure bail, but was invariably refused - the immigration officers replied that there was a risk of his escape and failure to appear in court.
“It sounded absurd: I voluntarily came to the USA from Moscow, with two higher educations. I have a solid case, my wife has been at large for a long time and is not trying to escape anywhere! ”, - Mikhail is indignant. However, the immigrant faced even more egregious cases.
“We had a mentally retarded person in our cell, his intellect was somewhere on the level of a 5-year-old child. But he was sent to trial on a general basis, although this man could not connect two words. His mental deviations were visible to the naked eye, but he was nevertheless separated from his family and considered his case without any indulgences. It caused an absolute shock, ”the immigrant recalls.
Mikhail's own trial was postponed several times, and each time the refugee paid for the arrival of his wife and lawyer for the failed trial.
“The first session of the court took place on May 31, the last - in October in Louisiana. As a result, on the basis of the already mentioned "inconsistencies" I was denied asylum. The refusal rate in this court generally exceeds 97%. We filed an appeal, and while awaiting review, I was transferred from Louisiana to Mississippi again. This time the conditions were better, there was more space, and most importantly, there was already access to a computer and a library, ”says the refugee.
In parallel, Mikhail continued to seek release from prison on bail. After 10 refusals, he went to federal court.
“I wrote my last request for release on bail myself, without a lawyer. Before that, the ICE employee made a direct forgery, indicating in his arguments that my passport was allegedly expired, and therefore it would be more difficult to deport me. It was a downright lie. In my appeal to the court, I enclosed a copy of my passport, which in fact was not expired. Then ICE realized that I would win the case anyway, and they rushed to let me go themselves, ”says Mikhail.
The Russian was released in October 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. According to him, no special measures were taken to ensure the safety of prisoners from illness.
“There were 140 of us indoors, and there was no social distance between us. They simply stopped letting us out into the dining room and for walks, that is, the regime became even more closed. Our prison, by the way, was the first in the southern states where the coronavirus appeared, and the first warden died from a pandemic in our country, ”Mikhail recalls.
Finally, an asylum court of appeal was held, which concluded that the previous judge had manipulated the facts. As a result, the decision to refuse to grant asylum was canceled, and the case was sent for a new examination. At the same time, the new court was appointed only for 2025, and before that, for some unknown reason, Mikhail was not even given a work permit.
“Our only salvation is the situation of my wife. Lida received a work permit, and although we are both in the same case, we have different courts. Her trial was postponed for a long time, and, finally, it should take place in a couple of months. If she wins the case, it automatically means that both of us will be granted asylum, ”the immigrant hopes.
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