When I got to immigrant detention,
I was in complete shock. The officers treat you like you have no rights, like you are not a human being.
After surviving torture in Kenya, Sylvester came to the U.S. on a student visa. As young people sometimes do, he made some poor choices and was arrested while in college after getting in with a bad crowd. Although charged with a misdemeanor, he was advised to plead guilty to a felony, not understanding the immigration consequences.
After serving 2 years in prison, rather than getting out on parole like U.S. citizens do, he was immediately transferred to immigration detention because of the felony charge. (This is why immigration advocates in California are working to pass AB937, The Vision Act. The Vision Act would prevent Immigration and Custom Enforcement, or ICE, from waiting outside the state or county prison when people get released; it would stop their immediate and automatic transfer to immigrant detention.)
“When I got to immigrant detention," said Sylvester, “I was in complete shock. I thought it would be better than state prison but actually it was worse. The officers treat you like you have no rights, like you are not a human being.”
Freedom for Immigrants is a nonprofit organization that monitors the human rights abuses faced by immigrants detained by ICE through a national hotline and network of volunteer visitors to immigrant detention centers. The hotline and the visitation are windows into the system, and through the stories they gather from immigrants, FFI advocates for the individual and pushes for policies to change the system.
FFI met Sylvester when he was detained at Etowah County Jail, a detention center in Alabama. The detention center was going to close down so Freedom for Immigrants was able to get Sylvester transferred to Otay Mesa Detention Center, near his family in San Diego. He was able to get a bond hearing, something he was qualified for but had previously been denied. He was finally released on a $2,000 bond after 9 years in immigration detention. Yes, 9 years! He continued to fight his deportation orders after his release.
If you meet Sylvester, you will not forget him or his smile. He loves to cook and is really good at it, so he made that his business once he got a work permit. Now Rafikiz Foods is a thriving food truck that you will find at street fairs all over southern CA.
Then Sylvester met and fell in love with Velia. They got married and now have a beautiful daughter, Akeya.
After everything he has gone through, his status is still unclear. With legal help, he has been able to get the felony charge reversed that he had been advised to plead guilty to so many years ago. His next step is to get a green card, which is permanent residency. Once he has had a green card for 5 years, he can apply to become a citizen.
Sylvester now volunteers for "Freedom for Immigrants", the non-profit immigrant advocacy organization that helped him through this ordeal. Like so many immigrants, Sylvester contributes so much to his community. He says that he sees himself as an example of what can happen if detained immigrants are given a chance to rebuild their lives. Of his life now, he says, “I’m just so blessed.”