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Asylum seekers at federal jail in Batavia sue over lack of parole

Hanad Abdi says he fled his native Somalia when it looked like the same men who killed his father were coming for him.

With the help of paid smugglers, he escaped to Ethiopia and then Brazil. From there, he made his way through nine countries before reaching his final destination – the U.S-Mexico border.

It was there in Brownsville, Texas, that Abdi declared his desire for asylum.

A short time later, he found himself in custody at the Federal Detention Center in Batavia. And now he is at the center of a lawsuit that claims the facility is unlawfully holding asylum seekers.

The suit claims the Batavia center stopped a long-standing practice of granting parole to asylum seekers who are not considered a danger to the community and have a credible chance of being granted asylum.

The change took place when President Trump took office in January, according to the suit filed by filed by Abdi and Johan Barrios Ramos, an asylum seeker from Cuba.

Barrios Ramos said the change in policy is so entrenched now that one of the guards at Batavia advised him to give up hope.

Johan Barrios Ramos, an asylum-seeker from Cuba, was granted parole shortly after filing a lawsuit.

"He told me only one in a million parole requests are granted, and it's a matter of luck," he said in his affidavit to the court.

Shortly after filing their lawsuit, and more than eight months after their arrival here, Barrios Ramos and Abdi were granted parole.

The suit claims the asylum seekers' prolonged detention is evidence of a dramatic change in policy at Batavia, a change their lawyers claim is harming the 40 or so asylum seekers held there at any given time.

"These are people who did everything right," said Paige Austin, a lawyer for Abdi and Barrios Ramos. "They never broke any laws. They came to our border and declared their desire for asylum."

A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that operates the detention center, said he could not comment on the suit but said his "lack of comment should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations."

"As part of the Department of Homeland Security's homeland security mission, our trained law enforcement professionals adhere to the Department's mission and values, and uphold our laws while continuing to provide the nation with safety and security," said ICE spokesman Khaalid H. Walls in a statement.

Many of the asylum seekers at Batavia went through "credible fear interviews" when they arrived in the United States, and the government found they were likely to face persecution or torture if they returned to their homeland, according to the suit.

Abdi, in his affidavit, talked about the tribal dispute in Somalia that led to his father's murder and ultimately his own imprisonment.

"These men captured me, tied me and beat me up," he said. "I believe they would have killed me had I not been able to escape later that day."

Abdi fled his homeland in June of last year and arrived in Texas four months later.

Filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the International Refugee Assistance Project , the suit claims the change in policy has forced people who fled violence and persecution to now languish in jail.

Most of those detainees, the suit claims, are people who have established their identity and proven they arLa not a danger to the community.

The NYCLU says new data from the Batavia facility indicates parole is granted in 10 percent of all asylum cases, down from 50 percent before Trump took office.

"Before the change, they were pretty much uniformly released as long as they had a place to go," Anne E. Doebler, a Buffalo immigration lawyer, said of the asylum seekers she represents. "And then suddenly, people were getting denied without explanation."

Doebler and two other lawyers filed affidavits with the court echoing the concerns expressed by Abdi and Barrios Ramos.

They claim the prolonged detentions make it difficult for their clients to prepare their asylum cases. They also believe detention is the last thing many of these people need after fleeing violence and persecution.

"A lot of these people have suffered trauma in the past," said Matthew K. Borowski, a Buffalo immigration lawyer. "And now, they're languishing in jail."

Borowski said the changes reminded him of a client, an African politician who was beaten by the opposing party in his country, fled to the U.S. and was granted humanitarian parole last year.

"Now, we're seeing a lot of humanitarian parole requests denied without any reason being given," he said.

The NYCLU, in an effort to stop the delays at Batavia, asked U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford for a preliminary injunction against ICE.

Lawyers say the goal is to insure that all eligible asylum seekers have a chance to seek parole from federal detention.

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