The Biden administration has quietly resumed deportations to Russia, an apparent reversal of the position adopted after Russia invaded Ukraine just over a year ago, when such removals were suspended, the Guardian has learned.
Immigration advocates were taken by surprise when a young Russian man, who came to the US fleeing Vladimir Putin’s efforts to mobilize citizens to fight in Ukraine, was abruptly deported at the weekend from the US back to Russia.
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He was among several Russian asylum seekers, many of whom have made their way to the US in the last year, who are now terrified the US government will return them to Russia where they could face prison or be sent rapidly to the frontline, where Russia has seen tens of thousands of casualties.
“US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) remains committed to enforcing immigration laws humanely, effectively and with professionalism. Ice facilitates the transfer and removal of non-citizens via commercial airlines and chartered flights in support of mission requirements,” the federal agency said this week, adding: “Ice conducts removals to countries, including Russia, in accordance with country removal guidelines.”
News of resumed deportations to Russia came just over a year after reports that the Biden administration had suspended deportation flights to Russia, Ukraine and seven other countries in Europe during Russia’s attack on Ukraine. It is unclear when deportations to Russia resumed. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Migrants from Russia came to the US thinking they could seek asylum and be protected from deportation because of the stated government position. Now the apparent change in policy has caused confusion for migrants and their advocates who are left with little time to plan.
Jennifer Scarborough, a Texas-based attorney whose clients include four Russian men who entered the US across the border from Mexico and sought asylum, is among those contending with policy confusion. These men cited fear of being drafted to fight in petitioning for asylum.
Scarborough said she was told by Ice officials that one of her clients was deported at the weekend and she explained that his legal and residency status mean she has 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 their feelings towards opposition. Just the 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 effectively out of options in their requests for asylum. The men stated during their respective “credible fear” interviews – meetings with immigration officers where asylum seekers must explain there is “significant possibility” of persecution or torture if returned home – that they feared being drafted to fight in Ukraine and repercussions if they did not comply.
The Guardian is withholding the identities of the clients concerned, due to fears of retribution.
Related: ‘We had no choice’: over 8,000 Russians seek US refuge in six-month period
Immigration officers ruled that fear of conscription did not meet the criteria for a “credible fear” determination and they each appealed before an immigration judge, who agreed that they did not meet the criteria, Scarborough said.
Scarborough said that these two men were not aware they only had seven days to request a new “credible fear interview” following the judge’s decision. These two men did not make their request by this deadline, so they were not able to get another interview, Scarborough said.
These two men now have pending removal orders – that is, they could potentially be deported to Russia at any time. One is presently in immigration detention in Louisiana while the other was released after going on hunger strike, Scarborough said.
One of Scarborough’s three remaining US clients in this situation did manage to file paperwork in time – and subsequently received an opportunity for a new “credible fear” interview. During this second interview, immigration officers did determine that fear of being drafted was a valid asylum claim that established “credible fear”, Scarborough said.
While receiving a credible fear determination is just an initial step in having a potentially successful asylum claim, it is important for asylum seekers, as immigration officials have largely been releasing migrants who meet this criteria as they go through the application process, Scarborough explained.
“Fleeing the draft can actually be a valid claim for asylum,” Scarborough said, later adding that she did not understand how the resumption of deportation flights squared with the US stance on Russia.
“If we’re against this war, then why are we saying that Russia has a right to conduct this draft and deport people to fight in this draft and to fight in Ukraine?
Related: Russia disinformation looks to US far right to weaken Ukraine support
“I don’t understand how you put those two policies side by side,” she said. “I just have questions about when they restarted this and why. In March of 2022, the US said they were stopping deportations to Russia because of the political situation – so I don’t understand why they restarted it and they did it so quietly.”
Meanwhile, Ice noted to the Guardian that: “US immigration laws allow non-citizens to pursue relief from removal – including credible fear proceedings; however, once all due process and appeals have been exhausted, and non-citizens remain subject to a final order of removal from an immigration judge, Ice officers may carry out the removal.”
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