immigration

They Fled Persecution for Being Queer. Now They've Been Separated by ICE

Yanelkys and Dayana came to the US seeking asylum. Now one of them is stuck in ICE custody.
June 15, 2020, 11:50am
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Image: Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

Yanelkys and Dayana spent every single day together for months before they presented themselves at the United States border for asylum in November 2019. Now all they want is to be together again.

The pair fled to the U.S. to escape harassment from police because of their relationship. Yanelkys, a 36-year-old lab technician, and Dayana, a 31-year-old construction worker, met at a party six years ago after being introduced by Yanelkys’ brother. Dayana, who spoke to VICE through a translator, said that what drew her to Yanelkys, a preternaturally kind person others knew they could rely on for help, was that she has a “good heart.”

“She sees people as good,” said Dayana, who asked that their last names be withheld to protect their safety. “No one is bad.”

Yanelkys and Dayana began dating in secret, but they lived in a small town where secrets rarely stay hidden for long. When Dayana’s family found out about the relationship, they kicked her out, and the couple soon moved in together. Any semblance of domestic bliss was cut short when word spread to neighbors and the local police. Law enforcement officials harassed them, called them homophobic slurs, and twice arrested them with no good cause: first for having a yard sale on their lawn and then for holding hands on a bench while celebrating New Year’s Eve. The second arrest resulted in a 73-hour stay in jail, along with a fine of 500 pesos (about $22).

The stint in jail, while brief, made it clear that it was time to leave Cuba, a country that can be extremely fractured on the subject of LGBTQ rights. Although 63 percent of Cubans voiced support for legalizing same-sex marriage in a 2019 poll, LGBTQ activists were arrested in 2019 for holding an unauthorized Pride march in Havana. When the couple asked to make a phone call from jail, a guard said they “should be careful” who they contact “because those people might never hear from [them] again.” “Gay people disappear in Cuba,” he told them.

“It felt like a closed circle with no escape,” Dayana said. “We didn’t want to go to work. We didn’t want to go outside. We were suffering.”

After leaving Cuba, the couple hoped to start a new life in a country where Dayana said you can be a “free person” and “express yourself.” “You can be the person you wanted to be in Cuba,” she said. Those dreams of being able to be together without fear of discrimination have been elusive, however: Dayana was released on parole in February, but Yanelkys’ asylum application was denied earlier this month. After being placed in ICE custody while her claim was processed, Yaneklys has remained in a detention center in South Louisiana, even despite the daily threat of contracting COVID-19 in a facility where social distancing is virtually impossible.

Yanelkys said she lives in constant fear that she will become infected with COVID-19. Detainees are expected to share small cells with dozens of other people, and the bunks are extremely close together. When guards escort them to the dining hall for breakfast and dinner, detainees are instructed to keep their distance from one another to prevent spreading the novel coronavirus, but there’s nowhere to hide.

“We are all on top of each other,” Yanelkys told VICE through a translator. “The room I was in before there were 30 of us, but they were trying to save space so they moved us to the room where we are now. There’s 70 of us.”

But Yanelkys said the close quarters that she and other detainees have been forced into don’t feel nearly as threatening to her health as the lack of preventative measures taken by guards. She claimed officials at the detention center do not wear masks or gloves, and when questioned during a meeting about why that was, she said the facility’s director said it was not “mandatory” that they do so.

Although the administrators have maintained that all staff are required to receive a daily test for COVID-19 before they begin their shifts, coronavirus tests aren’t 100 percent accurate; false negatives remain common. “We are all worried because the officials are the ones who have contact with the outside world, with people who could be infected,” she said. “They could infect all of us here.”

While there have been no recorded cases in Yanelkys’ detention center as of yet, more than 100 ICE detainees have contracted COVID-19 across the state of Louisiana. According to the Baton Rouge daily newspaper The Advocate, at least two guards have died from complications due to the novel coronavirus. Their families claimed supervisors at the Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, where the individuals worked before their deaths, “had at one point prevented them from wearing masks as the virus spread through the facility.”

Nationwide tests conducted by ICE returned over 1,000 positive results among detainees, but even that figure likely represents only a fraction of the actual cases. Just 8 percent of the population currently being held in ICE facilities, which numbers around 27,000 people, have been tested for coronavirus. It also may not include detainees who do not show symptoms of COVID-19.

Bridget Crawford, the legal director of the New York city-based nonprofit Immigration Equality, told VICE the situation is likely to worsen under current conditions at ICE facilities across the country. The LGBTQ and HIV-positive clients that Immigration Equality works with have reported that guards have given them little to no information about COVID-19 or how to protect themselves. In some cases, even the medical staff at detention centers haven’t been wearing gloves and masks, and many facilities have faced shortages of soap, meaning detainees aren’t able to disinfect themselves.

“This is ostensibly a tinderbox for the spread of COVID-19,” said Crawford, who is also Yanelkys’ attorney. “We frequently have clients who have endured unimaginable things in their country of origin and have fled that, seeing the United States as a beacon of hope. They come here and they're subjected to really horrific conditions.”

One of the aspects that makes cases like Yanelkys’ so “scary and frustrating,” Crawford said, is that it would be “really, really easy” for ICE to release her on parole. Immigration Equality’s clients often have sponsors who are willing to provide food, shelter, and other critical resources for them while they continue their asylum application, and Yanelkys’ friends wrote letters on her behalf to advocate for her release. And yet Yanelkys has now been denied parole twice, with ICE officials claiming on both occasions that she would be a “flight risk.”

Crawford dismissed that concern, saying that LGBTQ immigrants like Yanelkys come to the United States because they have nowhere else to go. “Here is a group of people that could be living safely, and it’s inexplicable why ICE isn’t taking the steps to make that happen,” she said. “There’s really no downside to releasing them.”

A spokesperson for ICE could not comment on the specifics of Yanelkys’ case but said that the department “convened a working group between medical professionals, disease control specialists, detention experts, and field operators to identify additional enhanced steps to minimize the spread of the virus in March.” As a result of the working group’s findings, the representative claimed that ICE “has since evaluated its detained population based upon the CDC’s guidance for people who might be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19 to determine whether continued detention was appropriate.”

“Of this medical risk population, ICE has released over 900 individuals after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns,” the spokesperson said. “This same methodology is currently being applied to other potentially vulnerable populations currently in custody and while making custody determinations for all new arrestees.”

Supporters remain hopeful about Yanelkys’ case, given some previous success in advocating for the release of asylum seekers at risk from COVID-19. In May, two men also escaping persecution in Cuba were released from a detention center in east Texas after Immigration Equality and the LGBTQ advocacy group Lambda Legal petitioned on their behalf. Both are living with HIV, which could have endangered their lives if they contracted coronavirus inside the facility. As VICE previously reported, HIV-positive detainees—who already have compromised immune systems—have struggled to get access to their medications during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, a Thursday letter written by U.S. House Rep. Mike Quigley spotlighted Yanelyks’ case, calling her detention an “issue of basic human decency.” The statement was signed by two dozen members of Congress.

Dayana is scared for her partner’s safety, but she knows they have no choice but to continue fighting for Yanelkys’ release, whatever it takes. After everything they’ve been through and the sacrifices they made to get here, she said that being reunited in a new country would be “like winning a war.”

“To achieve our dream would be something very big,” Dayana said. “It would be a happiness so big that I don't even know how to explain it.”

This article originally appeared on VICE US.