In July 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement transported David Hyfa Lorenzo John from the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia, New York, to a federal facility in Louisiana. It had been almost a year since he had been detained. Finally, it seemed, his imprisonment was coming to an end. From Louisiana, he was set to take a charter flight to St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
John had been waiting for this. He stopped fighting his case early in his detention, and had been requesting his removal since then. He figured he would rather be free, even if it meant deportation.
ICE scheduled his flight for July 24th, just one day before his emergency transport authorization from St. Vincent would expire. But after three weeks of waiting in Louisiana, John learned he would not be on the flight.
In court documents, DHS stated that he had been “pulled from the flight” in part because “ICE Air Operations mistakenly thought travel documents had not been issued when, in fact, documents had been issued.” John says ICE officers in Louisiana told him that his travel documents had been “falsified.”
Over the course of his detention in Batavia, John, 28, has had thirteen of his flights for removal cancelled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He also contracted COVID-19.
“They tell me [of the cancellations] the day of, sometimes the day before,” John said. “And I always have to be the one to initiate the question.”
John came to the United States twenty-three years ago from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, at the age of five. He was raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn, close to his cousin, Zalika.
“I’ve known David all my life. He’s two years apart from me, so we grew up kind of like brother and sister,” Zalika said. “He was very family oriented. We loved him and he loved us.”
As a teenager, John moved upstate, where his mother currently lives. At eighteen, he was convicted of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree in Kingston, New York. In August 2019, after serving eight years in prison, he was picked up by ICE and taken to Batavia. Three months later, John gave up on fighting his case.
“I cannot provide for my kids while I’m here,” said John, who has four children. “I’m only another dependent, so it makes absolutely no sense for me to stay here.”
His counsel at the time wrote to the Board of Immigration Appeals, “[John] implores that the Board issue its decision dismissing his appeal as soon as possible so that ICE may effectuate his removal.” In March 2020, DHS issued a warrant of removal. But month after month, his flights were cancelled.
A lawyer in the Buffalo area said that during the pandemic, ICE has responded to writ of habeas corpus petitions—which allow immigrant detainees to challenge prolonged or indefinite detention—by scheduling flights, despite the fact that commercial flights were being cancelled and many countries refused to accept deportees.
In September 2020, a habeas corpus petition John filed was denied, on the basis that another flight had been scheduled. He prepared himself for deportation, only to learn that the flight had been cancelled yet again. John said he felt that ICE was scheduling flights in part to shut down his habeas petitions.
“If I was to come to a conclusion, I would say it’s due to the fact that there are not many people here, so they need bodies for the beds,” said John. “The only time they actually release you is when they have a fresh batch coming in.”
During a widespread COVID-19 outbreak at Batavia in April 2020, John applied for medical release, citing health problems that made him vulnerable to the virus. His request was denied. This February, the facility was hit with a second outbreak that infected 63% of the population. John was one of the first to contract the virus.
“I’m a high risk, and when they took me to the quarantine unit, the unit was jam packed. So I started raising hell, like why are we all so close, why are we all being packed in one unit, when there are multiple units not even being used?” said John. “And from there, we just said, a lot of the things that’s going on, we no longer felt like tolerating.”
On March 24th John joined 35 detainees who went on hunger strike. They issued a letter through Justice for Migrant Families WNY, a local advocacy group, demanding their release and protesting the living conditions at Batavia. They described ICE retaliation against the hunger strike, through solitary confinement and threats of force feeding.
John said that ICE officers offered more food or recreation time to hunger strikers in order to get them to break.
By April, John was one of three detainees left on hunger strike. Officers berated him for continuing, telling him that if he didn’t stop, “we can easily lose you in the system.”
But after weeks of hunger striking, John was told he would board a flight for St. Vincent on April 9th. He would be returning to a country he left when he was five, leaving the rest of his family in the United States.
“I’m anxious and nervous all in one. I’m going into a new environment that I know absolutely nothing about,” said John, “But, you know, it beats sitting here.”
Hours before his flight, St. Vincent’s La Soufrière volcano began to erupt for the first time in 42 years. The eruption has displaced 20 percent of the island’s population, contaminating water and cutting off the island’s food supply. John remains detained in Batavia.
“I can only imagine what is going through David’s head, and how he feels,” Zalika said. “It kind of seems like they’re pushing him to his limit.”
ICE Buffalo Field Office Spokesman Alvin Phillips acknowledged that “The process was delayed due to the St. Vincent volcanic disaster,” but did not comment on any other cancelled flights. He added that, “ICE follows all recommended CDC guidance concerning COVID.”
Anna Porter, a volunteer for Justice for Migrant Families WNY, said “David John is someone who is speaking out, mostly because he has nothing to lose. But [he] represents this larger picture of people like him, who are going on hunger strikes, risking their lives to show the unjust and inhumane conditions of immigration detention.”
John says he feels stuck. “Don’t matter how many times I leave a paper trail, make a complaint, file a formal grievance, the result is always the same,” said John. “I felt highly upset, disappointed, sad. But it’s mostly just a boiling rage. I’m just so tired.”
He filed a new habeas petition last week. As for the hunger strike, he and one other detainee have decided to stay the course. They are on day 33.
“[ICE officers] said it’s not doing anything. They said the end result is nothing is happening. It’s not shedding any light towards anything,” said John. “But I’m not known for being a quitter, so I’m just going to stay on till the very end.”