Antiwar Activists Who Flee Russia Find Detention, Not Freedom, in the U.S.

PINE PRAIRIE, La. — They had fallen in love their first year in medical school in Russia, joined by their commitment to building democracy in a country where any remaining hope of it was disappearing.

When Russia pushed into Ukraine early this year, Mariia Shemiatina and Boris Shevchuk, who had married and become practicing physicians, posted videos of the bloodshed and antiwar messages on social media. “I call on Russians to see the truth, to not believe the lies of the Russian media,” Ms. Shemiatina, 29, wrote on Instagram. Her posts were deleted by the authorities again and again, she said — until her accounts were blocked.

The police called her family in search of the couple, who had gone into hiding. Certain that they were on the brink of being conscripted to serve as medics on the front lines, or imprisoned for their political activity, the couple decided to flee.

They managed to make it to Mexico in mid-April. Two weeks later, they drove to a U.S. port of entry, handed over their passports and requested asylum, expecting their first taste of true freedom. Instead, their hands were cuffed, their feet shackled and they were flown to remote immigration detention centers in rural Louisiana. It would be six months before they would see each other again.

“I thought when we left Russia that our suffering would be over,” Mr. Shevchuk, 28, said in an interview from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Pine Prairie, La. “I feel helpless.’’

As Vladimir Putin cracks down on dissidents and arrests draft dodgers, growing numbers of Russians are making their way across the U.S. southern border. But contrary to their expectations of asylum and freedom, many of them are being put into immigration detention centers that resemble prisons.

Even before Russia’s assault on Ukraine, anti-government activists had been pouring out of the country and seeking refuge in the United States. The exodus intensified after the war began in late February, reaching the highest tallies in recent history. In the 2022 fiscal year, 21,763 Russians were processed by U.S. authorities at the southern border, compared with 467 in 2020. In October alone, 3,879 came.

Mr. Shevchuk, left, goes over his release paperwork with his lawyer, Jessica Gutierrez, right.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

Everyone who touches American soil has the right to claim asylum, though it is granted only to those who can prove they were persecuted in their home country based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Many asylum seekers are released and allowed to argue their cases later in court. But thousands are sent to detention centers, where it is difficult to secure lawyers and collect evidence, and the chances of winning asylum are extremely slim.

ICE has not released statistics on the nationalities of migrants being held behind bars, but lawyers who work regularly with migrants say Russian asylum seekers appear to have been detained at relatively high rates in recent months — sometimes with bonds set in excess of $30,000. Some Russians have remained incarcerated for months under conditions they describe as extremely harsh.

“Proportionately, compared to people from other countries, there are more Russians being sent to detention,” said Svetlana Kaff, a San Francisco-based immigration lawyer who said she has been flooded with requests for help.

Like the young doctors who were held in Louisiana, many said they had come to the United States thinking they would be welcomed as allies in America’s push for democracy in Russia and Ukraine.

Olga Nikitina, who fled Russia with her husband after he was imprisoned there multiple times, spent five months in the same facility as Ms. Shemiatina. “The whole time I was there, they treated us like garbage,” said Ms. Nikitina, 33. “I called hotlines, but it did not help in any way”

Her husband, Aleksandr Balashov, 33, was detained for four months at a facility in Batavia, N.Y., where he says officers told him and others that they had no rights because they had entered the country illegally.

Ivan Sokolovski, 25, another activist, has been held at Pine Prairie for seven months. He recently lost his asylum case and said he fears that he will be deported to his death. “It would have been more humane to be shot dead at the border than to be held in prison so long,” he said.

Human rights groups have for years documented the prolonged confinement, medical negligence and mistreatment of immigrant detainees, especially those housed in for-profit contract facilities like those at Pine Prairie and Basile, 30 miles away, where Ms. Shemiatina was held.

Russian asylum-seekers interviewed said they have been at the mercy of guards who treat them with indifference and, not infrequently, hostility.

Husband and wife Aleksandr Balashov and Olga Nikitina. “The whole time I was there, they treated us like garbage,” said Ms. Nikitina. Credit…Grant Hindsley for The New York Times

ICE declined to discuss individual cases but said in a statement that the agency was “firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody.” It said the agency regularly reviews its detention operations to make sure that noncitizens “are treated humanely, protected from harm, provided appropriate medical and mental health care and receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled.”

GEO group, the private company that operates a network of immigration detention centers, including the ones in Louisiana, said its facilities provide round-the-clock access to medical care, a legal orientation program and free telephone calls to lawyers.

Mr. Shevchuk and Ms. Shemiatina had been increasingly concerned about corruption and crackdowns on public expression in Russia. They joined protests called by the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, in the run-up to Mr. Putin’s election to a fourth term in 2018. When the university threatened to withhold their degrees because of their activism, they continued to secretly donate money to Mr. Navalny’s organization in the years before he was poisoned and imprisoned.

“We believed young people can make change,” Ms. Shemiatina said.

The couple faced repercussions at the hospitals where they worked for their political views. They said their salaries were slashed after they refused to sign petitions and participate in demonstrations in support of Mr. Putin.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the couple began posting photos and videos on Instagram and V Kontakte, a Russian platform, and learned that the police were looking for them.

As doctors were mobilized for the war effort, they decided they had to leave the country.

Unable to obtain visas to the European Union, they followed the route of other recent Russian dissidents, flying to Mexico on April 13. Two weeks later, in the city of Tijuana, they reached the U.S. border and requested protection.

At the port of entry near San Diego, when they were ordered to remove valuables, Mr. Shevchuk tucked their wedding bands into a compartment of his backpack.

After six days in separate, cold and windowless cells, they were flown to Louisiana on May 5 and placed in different detention centers.

Rural Pine Prairie, La.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

At the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Basile, Ms. Shemiatina counted two dozen Russians in a dorm she shared with about 60 women in orange jumpsuits.

After three weeks, she had her first court appearance — over video with a judge thousands of miles away. She told her that she had illegally entered the country, but could assemble evidence to support her claim for asylum. Ms. Shemiatina explained that all the evidence was in the cellphone and laptop that authorities had confiscated, including screenshots of her antiwar posts, a notice about the call-up of physicians and evidence of threats she was receiving.

At Pine Prairie, Mr. Shevchuk went through similar motions. Still, at that point, he said, “I was thinking it wouldn’t be long until I saw my wife again.”

To pass the time and cheer up his wife, Mr. Shevchuk wrote letters and sketched drawings of romantic scenes — a couple sitting side-by-side gazing at a mountain, or standing hand-in-hand by a river — which he mailed to her. After a detainee threatened violence against him and other Russians, Ms. Shevchuk demanded they be moved. A guard handcuffed them during the transfer and knocked Mr. Shevchuk to the ground, he said, causing him to injure his head on the cement floor and his nose to bleed.

Drawings Mr. Shevchuk sent to his wife while he was detained.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

“I came to realize that I had left Russia for a place that was just like Russia,” he said.

Mr. Shevchuk went on a hunger strike. He fired off complaints to the immigration detention ombudsman, hotlines for human rights groups and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Finally, in early August, the couple made their way to the top of the wait-list of ISLA, a nonprofit immigrant aid organization in New Orleans. Their lawyer, Jessica Gutierrez, filed requests for the couple’s release, noting that they were not a flight risk and had a sponsor to receive them.

ICE responded that “after review of all the relevant facts,” it had determined that they could be released if each posted bond in the amount of $15,000.

But where would they find $30,000?

By then, Ms. Shemiatina had begun experiencing excruciating pain in her pelvic area and numbness on the left side of her body, but M.R.I.s were inconclusive, according to medical reports reviewed by the Times.

On Oct. 5, she was found unconscious in her room and then began having seizures. She was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with an unspecified neurological problem. When she was unable to walk without assistance, Ms. Gutierrez demanded her immediate release from ICE custody to “preserve her life.” Instead, she was sent back to detention.

On Oct. 28, ICE agreed to lower the bond for the couple to $10,000 each — money they still did not have.

“This is all so senseless,” Mr. Shevchuk said in an interview then, looking pale and despondent.

Finally, a Russian dissident Mr. Shevchuk had met at the border, Mr. Balashov, amassed the money to free Ms. Shemiatina.

Mr. Shevchuk placing his wife’s wedding ring back on her hand after he was released from detention.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times
Mr. Shevchuk holding up his shorts to show Ms. Shemiatina how he had lost some 30 pounds while in detention.Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

She traveled to New Orleans on Nov. 6 to await her husband, wearing a brace to support her leg.

Dan Gashler, a history professor at the State University of New York in Delhi and a volunteer for Freedom for Immigrants, which aids detained immigrants, had organized a fund-raiser to pay Mr. Shevchuk’s bond and fly the couple to New York. Community members volunteered to house and help them.

“These are incredible young people who fled because of their opposition to the regime,” he said, “and fell victim to our broken asylum process.”

On Nov. 8, Ms. Shemiatina climbed into a minivan, her lawyer at the wheel, for the three-hour drive to meet her husband at Pine Prairie. “I’m more happy than on my wedding day,” she declared.

When Mr. Shevchuk emerged from the concertina-ringed facility, smiling broadly, he quickened his pace to reunite with his wife, who hobbled toward him.

From his backpack, Mr. Shevchuk retrieved the wedding band he had hidden away six months earlier. He slipped it on Ms. Shemiatina’s finger.

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