Sylvester Owino is a small business owner in San Diego, California. His family owns Rafikiz Foodz — an authentic African food vendor offering "Kenyan food for your soul," using fresh ingredients from the local farmers market.
Those who encounter Owino’s welcoming personality are not aware what happens once he is done working for the day. A convicted felon who robbed a shop, Owino is fighting to stay in the United States through an asylum case that has lasted nearly a decade.
Owino arrived in the U.S. from Kenya in 1998 on a student visa, leaving a country where he said he was beaten, jailed and threatened by the government.
Five years later, an addiction to alcohol and gambling derailed him.
“I was going to college, but I used to drink too much," he said. "And I just quit college because of what had happened in my path and everything. I found this job after leaving college. I was working with disadvantaged people. And then I met some friends through work, and we started drinking after work, go to the casinos, and they introduced me to gambling,” he said.
During one of his last visits to the casino, he found himself out of money and decided to rob a nail salon. He was convicted of second-degree robbery.
“I thought I was going to get probation. And nobody never explained to me the immigration consequences. So I took a plea, which gave me three years,” Owino said.
He completed a two-year prison sentence and was transferred to the Otay Mesa Detention Center, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement began removal proceedings.
While in detention, Owino began waging what became a more than nine year fight against deportation.
Resisting deportation in the Trump era
Owino is among the more than 1 million people who President Donald Trump has targeted for deportation, including many who were convicted of serious crimes. Owino is an example of immigrants who broke the law and suffered consequences, but who turned their lives around and now are asking for a second chance to remain in the U.S.
However, the nation is sharply divided over immigration policy, and many Americans believe that people like Owino who were convicted of violent crimes should be deported back to their country of origin. Indeed, a Gallup poll earlier this year found that 37% of adults strongly favor or favor deporting all immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
“It’s not right to have these cases dragged on forever, it’s not fair to anybody,” said Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which backs Trump’s immigration policies. “On the other hand, we have no obligation to allow people to stay here if their behavior is causing problems in our communities. And if they disqualified themselves from the ability to stay here as a permanent resident,” then they have to accept the consequences of their behavior.”
Subject to mandatory immigration detention, Owino was not entitled to a bond hearing.
"When I got there, I was in a complete shock. I thought, 'This was supposed to be better (than state prison,)’ but actually it was worse. … The officers treated us like we have no rights, like we are not human beings," Owino said.
In a recent interview with reporters, David Fathi, director at ACLU’s National Prison Project, said most people do not think about mass incarceration and unhealthy conditions when they think of immigration detention.
“These are very vulnerable people. Many of them have suffered major physical and emotional trauma, beatings, starvation or rape, either in their home country or on their journey to the United States,” Fathi said.
Those who are “less” traumatized often suffer from cultural dislocation, family separation and the stresses of incarceration, including overcrowding and solitary confinement.
A Homeland Security inspector general report released at the beginning of the month showed that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had failed to meet government standards for housing migrant detainees at multiple facilities in 2018.
Investigators conducted unannounced inspections at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California, the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Louisiana, the Essex County Correctional Facility in New Jersey), and the Aurora ICE Processing Center in Colorado.
Poor conditions in facilities
At one of the facilities, inspectors saw mold throughout all the walls in the bathroom area, including shower stalls, ceilings, mirrors, and vents, and warned that prolonged exposure to mold and mildew can cause long-term health issues or allergic reactions.
ICE sent a statement to VOA saying the agency “appreciates” the efforts of the Office of Inspector General and that it concurs” with the report’s recommendation and the corrective actions detailed in the report.
“The safety, rights and health of detainees in ICE's custody are paramount,” ICE said.
On the solitary confinement issue, ICE said the use of restrictive housing in ICE detention facilities is “exceedingly rare, but at times necessary,” to ensure the safety of staff and individuals in a facility.
ICE’s policy to use “special management units” — or solitary confinement cells — is to protect detainees, staff and contractors from harm by segregating certain detainees from the general population for both administrative and disciplinary reasons.
The agency’s spokesperson added that in 2013, ICE issued a directive titled “Review of the Use of Segregation for ICE Detainees,” which requires agency reporting, review, and oversight of every decision to place detainees in segregated housing for over 14 days, and requires immediate reporting and review of segregation placements when heightened concerns exist based on the detainee’s health or other factors.
To Liz Martinez, director of advocacy and strategic communications at Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit that has been monitoring the conditions at ICE facilities for years, nothing in the OIG report is “new.”
"The people who are in immigration detention and call us on our free hotline have been reporting these kinds of abuses all the time.” she said.
Martinez said the “egregious” violations the OIG found are human rights violations.
“They keep happening over and over again, and no one is held accountable,” she added.
Freedom for Immigrants maintains an up-to-date map of the U.S. immigration detention system with more than 200 immigrant prisons and jails across the country.
According to government data, in fiscal year 2018, about 396,448 people were initially booked into an ICE detention facility, an increase of 22.5% from 2017. ICE’s interior enforcement efforts resulted in a 10% increase in book-ins resulting from ICE arrests.
Freedom for Immigrants’ website shows that 60% of people are held in privately run immigrant prisons.
According to ACLU experts, detained immigrants are the fastest-growing sector of the incarcerated population, from about 35,000 during the Obama years to 52,000 now.
“That's well above the 45,274 that Congress funded for fiscal year 2019,” Shah said.
After having his case go to the Board of Immigration Appeals twice, and then to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Owino was granted bond with the help of Freedom for Immigrants.
He said it was difficult fighting a deportation case from detention, since unlike in criminal proceedings, immigrants are not entitled to court-appointed attorneys.
Though there were days he thought about accepting deportation, Owino said he decided to make a plan for himself, instead.
“I was scared to go back (to Kenya) based on what happened to me. … I set a program for myself. I thought, ‘If I get out, no more drinking.’ So, I stayed away from that, and that was my No. 1 priority,” he told VOA.
Owino’s next court date is in September. In the meantime, he enjoys the company of his wife and 11-month-old daughter.
He acknowledges he made serious mistakes in his life, but sees himself as an example of what could happen if detained immigrants are given an opportunity to rebuild their lives.
“I’m just blessed, you know?”