It has been nearly 700 days since Bakhodir Madjitov was taken to prison in the United States. He has never been charged with a crime.
Madjitov, a 38-year-old Uzbek national and father of three U.S. citizens, received a final deportation order after his applications to legally immigrate failed. He is one of the approximately 50,000 people jailed on any given day in the past year under the authority of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the most foreigners held in immigration detention in U.S. history.
The majority of those detainees, such as Madjitov, are people with no prior criminal records.
According to the latest snapshot of ICE’s prisoner population, from early November, nearly 70% of the inmates had no prior criminal conviction. More than 14,000 are people the U.S. government has determined have a reasonable fear of persecution or torture if deported.
Though President Donald Trump has made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his first term, his administration lags far behind President Barack Obama’s pace of deportations. Obama – whom immigrant advocates at one point called the “deporter in chief” – removed 409,849 people in 2012. Trump, who has vowed to deport “millions” of immigrants, has yet to surpass 260,000 deportations in a single year.
And while Obama deported 1.18 million people during his first three years in office, Trump has deported fewer than 800,000.
It is unclear why deportations have been happening relatively slowly.
Eager to portray Trump as successful in his first year in office, ICE’s 2017 operational report compared “interior removals” – those arrested by ICE away from the border zones – during the first eight months of Trump’s term with the same eight-month period from the previous year, reporting a 37% increase from 44,512 to 61,094 people.
But the agency also acknowledged that overall deportation numbers had slipped, attributing the decline to fewer border apprehensions and suggesting that an “increased deterrent effect from ICE’s stronger interior enforcement efforts” had caused the change.
Administration officials this year have noted privately that Mexican nationals – who are easier to deport than Central Americans because of U.S. immigration laws – also made up a far greater proportion of the migrants apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border during Obama’s presidency.
ICE officials say that the detainee population has swelled – often cresting at 5,000 people more than ICE is budgeted to hold – as a direct result of the influxes of migrants along the southern border, and that when ICE is compelled to release people into the United States, it creates “an additional pull factor to draw more aliens to the U.S. and risk public safety,” said ICE spokesman Bryan Cox.
“The increase in ICE’s detained population this year was directly tied to the border crisis,” Cox said. “About 75% of ICE’s detention book-ins in fiscal year 2019 came directly from the border.”
Immigrant advocates say the packed jail cells result from an administration obsessed with employing harsh immigration tactics as a means of deterrence. They say the Trump administration is keeping people like Madjitov locked up when they previously would have been released pending the outcomes of their cases.
ICE also is holding people longer: Non-criminals are spending an average of 60 days in immigrant jails, nearly twice the length of the average stay 10 years ago, and 11 days longer than convicted criminals, according to government statistics.
“ICE has sort of declared open season on immigrants,” said Michael Tan, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “So you’re seeing people who under the previous administration would have been eligible for bond and release being kept in custody.”
ICE officials say that they are enforcing a set of laws created by Congress and that the agency is working to take dangerous criminals off the streets. At a fiery White House briefing in October, acting ICE director Matthew Albence spoke of agents “unnecessarily putting themselves in harm’s way” on a daily basis to remove foreign nationals who might cause harm to U.S. citizens. ICE Assistant Director Barbara Gonzalez spoke of having to “hold the hand of too many mothers who have lost a child to a DUI, or somebody else who’s been raped by an illegal alien or someone with a nexus to immigration.”
Most of those in immigration detention are neither hardened criminals nor saints. They are people who overstayed their visas, or whose asylum claims failed. They are people who struggled to navigate a complex immigration system, or who never tried at all, or who made critical mistakes along the way. They tend to be poor, luckless and lawyerless, advocates and researchers say.
A November snapshot of ICE’s prisoner population showed that about 68% had no prior criminal conviction. According to the agency’s deportation data, one of the most common criminal convictions is illegal reentry.
Cox said that all ICE detainees are “evaluated on a case-by-case basis based upon the totality of their circumstances” and that those kept in detention are “generally those with criminality or other public safety or flight-risk factors.”
With ICE’s release of 250,000 “family units” apprehended along the border, the agency released 50% more people in fiscal 2019 than in the previous year, Cox said.
– – –
Madjitov was born in 1981 into a family of musicians in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which was then part of the Soviet Union. His father taught him to play the karnay, a long, hornlike instrument, and he joined an ensemble of traditional musicians.
The family was religious, and as a young man in 2005, Madjitov joined thousands of others in a mass protest of the brutal regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who was infamous for his persecution of political dissidents and the devout. Government forces opened fire on the crowds, killing hundreds, and they arrested scores of others, including Madjitov. After being released from prison weeks later, Madjitov resolved to leave Uzbekistan.
A music festival in Austin several months later provided the ticket out. Madjitov and a dozen other folk musicians landed there in 2006, on P-3 temporary visas for entertainers.
He traveled from the festival to live with friends – other Uzbek immigrants – in Kissimmee, Florida. He found a job working at a Disney hotel and applied for asylum.
His application was rejected, so he appealed it. And when the appeal was rejected, he appealed that, his case bumping along through the dense bureaucracy with hundreds of thousands of others.
Madjitov received a final order of removal in 2011. But with no criminal conduct on his record, he was deemed a low priority for deportation by the Obama administration.
Ten years after Madjitov’s arrival, Trump came to office on a vow to deport “criminal illegal aliens,” the murderers, rapists and gang members who Trump claimed were gaming the immigration system, preying on U.S. citizens and their tax dollars.
Madjitov was taken into custody in 2017.
“My family, myself, we never did anything wrong,” Madjitov said in a phone interview from the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, where he is being held, a thousand miles from his family in Connecticut. “That’s why we chose to stay in this country, because of the freedom.”
After nearly three years in office, Trump has made good on part of his promise. Between Oct. 1, 2018, and the end of September, the administration initiated more than 419,000 deportation proceedings, more than at any point in at least 25 years, according to government statistics compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Unlike under Obama, deporting the migrants has proved more difficult. Many of those crossing the southern border have requested asylum, which entitles them to a certain amount of due process in the immigration court system – protections that the administration also is working to dismantle.
Immigrant advocates believe the system has become overwhelmed because of the administration’s zeal to deport, even though in many cases it lacks the resources or legal standing to do so.
“The Obama administration, because they had enforcement priorities, were able to streamline deportations,” said Sophia Genovese, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. “The Trump administration is making it harder for people to obtain visas or legal status, and at the same time their deportation priority is everyone. So because of that, they clog the system.”
Most of the serious criminals slated for deportation come to ICE by way of the criminal justice system, according to ICE and defense lawyers. Convicted murderers or drug offenders finish their sentences in state or federal prisons and then are transferred into ICE’s custody.
In Georgia, lawyers say they have noticed a ballooning number of immigrants who have no criminal records but have been pulled into ICE detention because of violations such as driving without a license or without insurance. They include victims of domestic violence and speakers of Central American indigenous languages, Genovese said.
“It’s been really difficult to provide them with representation,” she said. “In court, their cases aren’t being translated. And a lot of them are just giving up.”
In 2018, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Ansly Damus, a Haitian ethics professor who claimed asylum but was kept in ICE detention for two years afterward despite not having a criminal record or posing a flight risk. U.S. District Judge James Boasburg recognized that such people normally would have been “overwhelmingly released,” and prohibited five ICE field offices from denying parole without individual determinations that a person poses a flight risk or danger to the public. Tan said the ACLU is now monitoring ICE’s compliance with the injunction and is seeing mixed results.
– – –
The U.S. government might have valid reasons to be suspicious of Madjitov, but officials declined to say what they are.
According to federal court filings that do not name Madjitov, his wife’s brother, also an Uzbek immigrant, traveled to Syria in 2013 to join the al-Nusra Front, an extremist group with ties to al-Qaida. Saidjon Mamadjonov was killed shortly thereafter. And the FBI later accused Madjitov’s other brother-in-law, Sidikjon Mamadjonov, of hiding what he knew about Saidjon’s death during interviews with federal investigators.
But no one ever accused Madjitov or his wife, Madina Mamadjonova, of wrongdoing.
The couple settled in Windsor, Connecticut, where Madjitov worked as a home health aide and Mamadjonova gave birth to two boys.
Madjitov planted a garden of tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and apple trees in the family’s yard. On Fridays, they would go to the mosque together, and on weekends they would go to the park and out for pizza or Chinese food.
“I always worked with my lawyer wherever I lived – I always notified DHS where I lived, and they always gave me a work permit,” Madjitov said.
“We were a very happy couple,” said Mamadjonova, who said she has struggled to support the family since his arrest and has been battling depression. “He was very affectionate, a very kind and caring father.”
On Oct. 31, 2017, another Uzbek immigrant who claimed to have been inspired by the Islamic State terrorist group drove a rented truck onto a crowded bike path in New York, killing eight people.
A few weeks later, law enforcement officials came to Madjitov’s house searching for information about the brother-in-law who had died in Syria three years earlier. The couple said they told investigators they didn’t have anything. A month after that, on a cold December morning, ICE showed up and arrested Madjitov because hehad a final order of removal.
Mamadjonova said her husband was still in his pajamas when ICE asked her to go retrieve his identification documents from the bedroom. “When I came back, he was handcuffed,” said Mamadjonova, who was 39 weeks pregnant with the couple’s third child at the time. “He was crying.”
The Trump administration, which increased its removals of Uzbek nationals by 46% in 2017, never again asked Madjitov about Saidjon or terrorism. ICE said Madjitov’s file contained no criminal record, nor was he marked as a “known or suspected terrorist.”
He is still in captivity.
ICE says that Madjitov’s crime is his failure to leave the United States after receiving a final order of removal, and that the agency is authorized to continue holding him because he refused to board a deportation flight in June 2019, when ICE tried to remove him.
The Etowah County Detention Center, where Madjitov is being held, is known among immigration attorneys as a facility that holds people ICE wants to put away for a long time. There, Madjitov is one of about 120 people in a unit, surrounded by immigrants with a shared sense of desperation.
“All of them are from different countries, from Africa, from Asia, from different religions. Most of them – like 90% – have families in this country. So all of them are fighting for their cases,” he said. “Every day I pray to God. Every day I’m scared they’re going to try to remove me. Every day, I have nightmares.”