One of the longest-serving immigrant detainees in the United States is now free.
This week an immigration judge in California granted bond to Sylvester Owino, a 38-year-old Kenyan national, almost a decade after he was transferred into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody on no criminal charges.
In November, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an immigration court’s decision to deport Owino, ruling immigration judge Zsa Zsa De Paolo didn’t consider relevant evidence in the case. The case was remanded back to De Paolo for a third time to consider his claim under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
ICE transferred Owino from Alabama back to California for a preliminary hearing in late February, and De Paolo asked Owino how long he had been in civil custody. She acknowledged nine years was a long time and that resolution of his case would take even longer, so she ordered him to return with information for a bond hearing.
“It was the first time anybody considered how long he’d been in custody,” said attorney James Fife, who has represented Owino since 2006. “Suddenly, out of nowhere, with no change in circumstances, someone looks at the same facts and says, ‘Yeah, you can get out.’ I was shocked. He could have been released a long time ago.”
De Paolo set Owino’s bond at $1,500, the lowest allowable amount. The advocate group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) raised it in less than half an hour.
According to ICE, it holds detainees an average of one month, while it carries out roughly 400,000 deportations each year—mostly for unlawful presence in the country and others for criminal behavior. ICE deports about four out of five detainees. Most of the remaining immigrants are allowed to stay on the merits of their cases, but Owino and a few hundred others get stuck in legal limbo.
Owino, whom WORLD profiled last year, came to the U.S. on a legal student visa in 1998, but a series of alcohol-related run-ins with the law in his early 20s earned him a three-year prison sentence in 2003. When he finished his sentence late 2005, ICE took custody of Owino, who said Kenyan authorities would torture him upon his return because of his prior statements opposing the government.
The ensuing legal battle has lasted more than nine years. Immigration courts have denied Owino’s requests for bail, saying he’s a flight risk.
“The people who have fought their cases for years are the kind who will not abscond, because they know they’re right,” said Fife, who has never had a client held longer than Owino. “If they disappear, they’ll lose automatically.”
Owino has expressed willingness to go anywhere in the world except Kenya, and now that he’s out of detention, he might be able to complete the necessary paperwork, such as obtaining a passport, to make that happen. His next court date is scheduled for April, but if he leaves the U.S., his case would be closed.
The federal government spends $2 billion annually to detain immigrants like Owino. Fife said sometimes detention is necessary to keep dangerous criminals off the streets, but other times he has to fight the hardest to gain release for those who deserve it the most.
“They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep him locked up needlessly,” Fife said. “Every reason the judge used to release him was true four, five, and six years ago.”