I spent a decade in immigration detention

I spent a decade in immigration detention
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Do you know what it’s like to be imprisoned with no end in sight? I do. I was held in U.S. immigration detention for nearly a decade. And now the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of indefinite detention by deciding that people like me are not entitled to bond hearings for now.  

Where do I even begin to explain just how devastating the court’s ruling in Jennings v. Rodriguez is for me and the thousands of immigrants, including legal permanent residents and asylum seekers, who are locked up in this unjust system? I would still be in detention if I hadn’t been granted the opportunity to go before an immigration judge and present my case.

Getting to that moment was difficult, almost unimaginable.

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I fled Kenya in 1998 during a time of political unrest in which I was tortured by police. In Kenya I owned a bicycle repair shop where people came to talk about political issues. In 1996, I was arrested and beaten for distributing leaflets on behalf of a women’s rights group, so I left my home for Nairobi, where I enrolled in college. In the fall of 1997, I was again arrested, beaten and threatened for criticizing the Kenyan government. The following year, when I was able to secure a student visa, I came to the United States, which became my home.

 

But in 2003, I was convicted of a robbery in southern California and, after a year, the Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained me in 2005, after I had completed my criminal sentence for the robbery. I applied for asylum and that’s when my nine-year, four-month odyssey through this country’s immigration system began.

For those who haven’t been detained and don’t know anyone in detention, it’s easy to think, “OK, it’s just detention; they hold you there, they process you, and then you’re out.” But immigration detention is actually a civil form of prison, and as such, people in detention have no right to a court-appointed attorney. You aren’t even told when you’ll be released, or if you will be released. What this means is that people like me languish in this system, sometimes for months or even years. You’re essentially on your own.

People with whom I have spoken are constantly amazed by the terrible living conditions and the abuse you endure in these facilities. If we complained, the officers would say, “If you don't like it like that, go back to your country.”  

Going back to my country wasn’t an option. My life was in danger. Who stays in immigration custody for years if they don’t have a credible fear of returning to their home country?

While in detention, I started going to the law library, where we can work on our cases. I made it my mission to not only help my case but also help other people in my situation. Many resigned themselves to deportation because, even if they had a case and eventually could be released, they couldn’t stand the idea of being detained for a minimum of six months — and possibly years — away from their families.

My applications both for bond and relief from removal initially were denied, and it ultimately took multiple Ninth Circuit decisions to correct the various errors committed by the immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals. As the years passed, I repeatedly sought new bond hearings, but my requests for release were denied.

When the Rodriguez case was decided in the Ninth Circuit, I was thrilled. This case essentially provided a bond hearing for anyone in immigration detention for longer than six months, including a large class of people who are in what is known as “mandatory detention.”

I was finally going to get a bond hearing — a chance at freedom. Instead, ICE transferred me to a detention facility in Alabama. There was no bond hearing available to me there.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone. A community of activists, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, successfully campaigned to get me transferred back to California where I could finally have my bond hearing. Ironically, the same judge who denied my case early on in my detention granted me my liberty nine years later.

What our country’s high court is saying with its decision overturning the Ninth Circuit case is that immigrants held by the government and facing deportation are not entitled to a bond hearing even after months or years of detention; that private prison companies are guaranteed a profit; and that the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees due process, does not apply.

Now I have a chance to rebuild my life and start a family, and continue to fight my case. I almost didn’t. I can’t get those years of my life back, or see my parents who both died while I was detained by ICE, but I can fight for those like me, because nobody should have to endure what I did.

Sylvester Owino is the owner of Rafikiz Foodz in San Diego and a member of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, a national network that is working to end U.S. immigration detention.