Photo: Etienne Laurent/EPA
The Biden administration has quietly resumed deportations Russiaan apparent reversal of the position taken after Russia invaded Ukraine just over a year ago, when such deportations were suspended, the Guardian has learned.
Immigration advocates were surprised when a young Russian who fled to the US to escape Vladimir Putin’s efforts to mobilize citizens to fight in Ukraine was abruptly deported back to Russia from the US over the weekend.
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He was among several Russian asylum seekers, many of whom made their way to the US in the last year and now fear the US government will send them back to Russia, where they face jail or are quickly sent to the front lines, where Russia has seen tens of thousands of victims.
“US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) remains committed to humane, effective and professional enforcement of immigration laws. Ice facilitates the transfer and removal of non-citizens via commercial airlines and charter flights in support of mission requirements.” the federal agency said this week, adding: “Ice is conducting relocations to countries, including Russia, in accordance with the country’s removal guidelines.”
News of resumed deportations to Russia came just over a year after reports from the Biden administration suspended deportation flights to Russia, Ukraine and seven other countries in Europe during the Russian attack on Ukraine. It is unclear when deportations to Russia will resume. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Migrants from Russia came to the US thinking they could apply for asylum and be protected from deportation because of the government’s stated position. Now the apparent change in policy has created confusion among migrants and their advocates, who have little time to plan.
Jennifer Scarborough, a Texas-based attorney whose clients include four Russian men who entered the United States via the United States border with Mexico and seeking asylum is among those struggling with political confusion. These men feared being drafted into combat when they applied for asylum.
Scarborough said she was informed by Ice officials that one of her clients had been deported over the weekend, and she explained her legal and immigration status meant she had no doubt he was taken to Russia.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to him,” Scarborough said. “Russia has been incredibly vocal about its feelings towards the opposition. The very fact that they fled Russia to come to the United States puts them at risk.”
Two of Scarborough’s other clients remain in legal limbo as they are left with virtually no options when it comes to their asylum claims. The men said during their respective “credible fears” interviews — meetings with immigration officials where asylum-seekers are required to explain that there are “significant possibilities” of persecution or torture if they return home — that they feared going to fight in to be confiscated from Ukraine and face consequences if it were not complied with.
The Guardian is withholding the identity of the affected customers for fear of retribution.
Related: “We had no choice”: Over 8,000 Russians sought refuge in the US in six months
Immigration officials ruled that fear of conscription did not meet the criteria for a finding of “credible fear,” and they each appealed to an immigration judge, who agreed they did not meet the criteria, Scarborough said.
Scarborough said these two men were unaware they had just seven days to request a new “credible anxiety interview” following the judge’s decision. Those two men did not apply by that date, so they were unable to get another interview, Scarborough said.
Both of these men now have pending deportation orders – which means they could potentially be deported to Russia at any time. One is currently in immigration detention in Louisiana, while the other was released after going on a hunger strike, Scarborough said.
One of Scarborough’s three remaining US clients in this situation managed to file the paperwork on time – and was subsequently given the opportunity for a new “credible fear” interview. During that second interview, immigration officers determined that the fear of being drafted was a valid asylum claim that established “credible fear,” Scarborough said.
While obtaining a credible statement of fear is only a first step towards a potentially successful asylum application, it is important for asylum seekers because immigration authorities have largely dismissed migrants who meet these criteria during the application process, Scarborough explained.
“Escape from conscription may actually be a valid asylum claim,” Scarborough said, later adding that she didn’t understand how the resumption of deportation flights squared with the US stance on Russia.
“If we are against this war, why are we saying that Russia has the right to carry out this design and deport people to fight in this design and to fight in Ukraine?
Related: Russia’s disinformation looks to the US far right to weaken support for Ukraine
“I don’t see how you juxtapose these two policies,” she said. “I just have questions about when they restarted this and why. In March 2022, the US said they would stop deportations to Russia because of the political situation – so I don’t understand why they started it again and they did it so quietly.”
Meanwhile, Ice noted to the Guardian: “US immigration laws allow non-citizens to obtain facilitation of deportation – including credible fear procedures; However, once all due process and appeals have been exhausted and non-citizens are subject to a final deportation order from an immigration judge, ICE officers can proceed with the deportation.”