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News >  Spokane

After months in immigration detention, worlds of Central American, African refugees collide in Spokane during quarantine

UPDATED: Mon., April 27, 2020

While sitting in the backyard of his immigration sponsor’s house in Spokane three weeks ago, Silvio Urbina Rojas broke down in tears as he read a letter sent by his nephew from a for-profit immigration jail in Louisiana.

Suzi Hokonson, his sponsor, unable to translate the letter from Spanish or communicate with Urbina Rojas beyond basic English phrases, could only imagine what was running through his head.

Urbina Rojas, his nephew Alberto Lovo Rojas and his neighbor Lester Garzon took to the streets of their nation’s capital in the spring of 2018 after the Nicaraguan government changed the structure of social security benefits so employers and workers paid more while pensioners received less.

It was the final straw for many after years of increasingly authoritarian policies instituted by three-term President Daniel Ortega, who oversaw the elimination of term limits and has been accused of election fraud.

Human rights groups tallied as many as 450 deaths and at least 2,800 injured during protests between April and August 2018.

Like many others, Urbina Rojas was caught in the gunfire.

As the protests continued to escalate and individual activists were targeted, Urbina Rojas, Lovo Rojas and Garzon fled Nicaragua in September 2018 in hopes of finding asylum in the U.S.

The trio met Hokonson about four months later near the border with Mexico in Tijuana, where the Spokanite was a volunteer assisting immigration attorneys.

Three weeks ago, after more than 400 days in custody, Urbina Rojas walked out free – mostly due to luck.

He happened to be one of eight asylum seekers, many of them with underlying health conditions, named in a Southern Poverty Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union motion seeking the release of detainees amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Urbina Rojas and just one other man were released.

The Nicaraguan refugee arrived in Spokane on April 4 but without his nephew. And he almost immediately went into quarantine at a local motel.

The only person he’s talked to in person in Spanish since is Lewis Nuah, a Cameroonian political activist who fled his country when soldiers burned down his business in 2018.

Nuah picked up Spanish during his own harrowing journey to the U.S. and happened to meet Garzon, Urbina Rojas’ former neighbor, in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention in California.

The Cameroonian, who has a political science degree and knows several languages, became Hokonson’s de facto Spanish interpreter when he arrived in Spokane in December. And it’s a challenge he has readily taken on while he looks forward to advancing his education and finding a job.

So later that day three weeks ago, Nuah translated Lovo Rojas’s letter that brought his uncle to tears. It was about nearly being deported days before Urbina Roja’s release.

“Again, just like yesterday, I had to be in handcuffs for over eight hours,” Lovo Rojas wrote in an April 2 letter. “How I wish I had a cellphone on me to take a picture so you can see how it looks to be in those cuffs. The ankles and the wrists pain me so much when I’m in cuffs for that long.”

“To add to it is the tiredness and feeling sleepy,” he continued. “The cold and the hunger, too.”

The uprising in Nicaragua

Six days after his release from ICE detention, 60-year-old Silvio Urbina Rojas pointed to where he feels chronic pain in his back and shoulder while seated at a picnic table in Corbin Park in north Spokane.

Then he quickly thrust his arms into the air and – humming a patriotic song – mimed waving a Nicaraguan flag on pole over his head, transporting himself back to the marches through the capital city of Managua two years prior.

The aches from that uprising – physical and mental – persist.

Urbina Rojas, a former truck driver and air conditioning mechanic, jotted down several pages of notes about his grievances with Nicaragua’s authoritarian government to share with The Spokesman-Review.

But the decision that turned him and countless others into activists was a social security overhaul that threatened Urbina Rojas and other pensioners’ benefits.

It sparked protests among them and their supporters, which the government responded to with violence – at times lethal, the Washington Post reported. That move backfired, only fueling more unrest by inspiring other workers to join the cause, along with students, who already were discontented by the government’s slow response to a forest fire at a biological reserve in the southeastern part of the county.

Riot police with batons and shields and pro-government militias met protesters carrying heavy sticks and rocks, according to NPR and the Washington Post.

Looters ran rampant. Tear gas and bullets flew through the air. Protesters would soon arm themselves with guns and homemade mortars.

Urbina Rojas joined the movement after he saw young people like his sons and nephews facing extreme violence while standing up for a just cause.

His nephew, 37-year-old Lovo Rojas, an agricultural engineer at one of the local universities, joined him. Garzon, 26, a university student and Urbina Rojas’ neighbor, also protested.

Close to 30 people died during several days of protests across the country before President Daniel Ortega – Nicaragua’s Marxist leader who led the Sandinista movement overthrow of a U.S.-backed right-wing dictator in 1979 – walked back the proposed social security reforms.

But protesters returned to the streets the following day with broader demands, including the release of detained activists and the resignations of Ortega and Rosario Murillo, the first lady and vice president.

Behind the scenes, hundreds of individual protesters were targeted, kidnapped and sometimes killed. One activist who was kidnapped was a student and American citizen.

Mass violence returned in May when as many as 18 people died and more than 200 were injured by gunfire during a Mother’s Day protest in the nation’s capital led by the mothers of those killed during previous protests, the Washington Post reported.

Urbina Rojas was hit by two bullets in the shoulder and buttocks while marching through Managua on May 23 – in a week during which more than a dozen people died.

Dangerous unrest persisted as Urbina Rojas left Nicaragua with his nephew after being labeled right-wing sympathizers. Garzon left separately from them.

They decided to seek political asylum in the U.S. because Guatemala and Honduras were dealing with crises of their own, Urbina Rojas said.

But during their second day in Mexico – just five days after leaving Nicaragua – Urbina Rojas said he and his nephew were beaten, robbed and left on a hillside with no clothes or money. Urbina Rojas found a job as a mechanic, and Lovo Rojas worked as a waiter for nearly four months while they saved up money and waited for a visa.

The pair was allowed to travel to Tijuana on a humanitarian visa in mid-January. They arrived on Jan. 20 after a four-day bus ride where the men took turns sleeping and watching over one another.

Urbina Rojas thought the rest of their journey would be easy – just a few days in ICE detention and then they could start their new lives.

“The U.S. pays more attention to human rights,” Urbina Rojas said in a translation from Nuah.

Near civil war in Cameroon

Cameroonian political activist Lewis Nuah, 29, sat across from Urbina Rojas, a Nicaraguan more than twice his age, at the picnic table in Corbin Park three weeks ago, translating a story not much different from his own.

The political climate of Nuah’s home country became untenable when he became embroiled in a conflict that has its roots in the country’s colonial past and has brought it to the brink of civil war.

His business, a small grocery store, was burned to the ground when he closed it in solidarity with a protest.

“I had to flee for my life from Cameroon,” Nuah told The Spokesman-Review during a January interview.

Nuah first realized he was facing immense discrimination by the Cameroonian government when he began studying history and reading newspapers during high school.

France and Britain seized the territory from Germany in 1916, and it was divided between the colonial powers. French Cameroon won independence in 1960, and the British territory joined the republic the following year.

Nuah is among the approximate fifth of the country’s population who speak English, called Anglophones. The rest, called Francophones, speak French, and that’s the portion of the country that dominates government decision-making.

“If there’s a case of minority, you know what the majority can always do to the minority,” Nuah said. “It’s been going on for about six decades now.”

Cameroon has had the same president, Paul Biya, a Francophone, since 1982. He was re-elected for another seven-year term in an October 2018 election mired in fraud accusations.

The divide between English-speaking Cameroon and French Cameroon is visible even in terms of urban development, Nuah said.

“From time to time I crossed over,” Nuah said, “You see the roads are paved. Most of the streets have street lights. When you get back to (the English section) of the country, it looks like you’re two steps back into uncivilization.”

Inspired to want to bring equality to his country, Nuah earned a political science degree in 2014. For the subsequent two years he submitted numerous applications for more training and sat for many public exams in hopes of earning a job in government administration.

“I don’t think it’s based on merit. It’s on who you know,” said Nuah. “It dawned on me that it looks like that dream was not coming true.”

So Nuah decided to open a small grocery store in his town in 2016, which was also when conflict between the Anglophones and Francophones started to become violent.

English-speaking lawyers and teachers organized peaceful protests against the government for assigning French-speaking judges and teachers to their courts and schools in an attempt to force assimilation upon them.

“The government responded with violence – beating the lawyers, arresting the teachers,” Nuah said, inspiring disgruntled Cameroonians to want revolution.

People who joined the uprising began asking for an independent state and wanted to opt out of the union with French Cameroon, Nuah said. The government then outlawed protests and free political expression.

“They kept arresting people from English Cameroon, taking them over to French Cameroon for incarceration,” Nuah said. There was “killing and burning of villages and homes with occupants in them.”

Soldiers reportedly fired on protesters from helicopters in October 2017.

As the government continued with violence, “they continued to radicalize people who stayed behind and stayed quiet,” Nuah said. “It’s just a normal human reaction.”

Arms groups formed to fight back against the military, Nuah said. Protesters organized strikes, calling off all activities on days for public events and elections. So people remained in their homes all day, only emerging for food in the evening.

But businesses that remained closed were labeled as sympathetic to the revolution. And the government sought to make an example out of them.

“I had my business burned down Sept. 28 in 2018,” Nuah said.

More than 150 members of Cameroon’s security forces and around 400 civilians were killed by arms groups on both sides of the conflict by later October, the Washington Post reported.

Without his store, Nuah became more involved in protests. But that was only until law enforcement threatened to arrest him outside of a protest at a police precinct.

“Your friends and your families, they don’t have access to visit you,” Nuah said. “And if they go seeking for information about you, they are under risk of being arrested, too.”

He left his seaport town, along with his girlfriend and infant son, on a boat to Nigeria via a common transportation route and then found housing with a friend from college for about a month in December 2018.

But Nuah knew Nigeria wasn’t safe, either. He remembered the extradition treaty with his country and how Nigerian law enforcement raided a meeting of Cameroonian revolutionaries. The leaders were sent back to Cameroon and sentenced to life in prison.

So he bought a plane ticket to Ecuador, where he could travel without a visa, with the help of his brother and friend.

Once in South America, Nuah met two other Cameroonians and two Indians around a dinner table at a hotel. They told him they were traveling to the U.S. to seek political asylum.

“Originally, I didn’t know that was possible,” Nuah said. “I was moved and I decided to join them on the journey.”

Nuah said he felt like a tourist for a while, taking in views of the landscape, but he soon began discovering the difficulties many migrants face once he left Ecuador.

In Colombia, police pulled him and his companions off a bus, and they paid a bribe of about $20 to continue their journey. He also realized many businesses were upcharging him because he was carrying U.S. currency.

To reach Panama, Nuah applied for a Colombian permit to travel across the Gulf of Urabá in an open-top boat for about four hours to a town near the neighboring country’s border.

“You could see the danger, you could see the waves,” Nuah said. “A lot of people kept throwing up, and you could hear the shouts each time the boat goes in the air and lands back on water.”

As many as 27 people may have died when a boat sank during a crossing around the time Nuah was there, according to the newspaper El Tiempo.

But the scariest part of the journey – trekking through an infamous stretch of jungle in Panama known as the Darien Gap – was yet to come.

Nuah said his group took three days to make the journey across rivers and over mountains that takes others 10, which limited their exposure to danger. They passed many corpses on the way.

“You can run into a wild animal or thieves who steal at gunpoint,” said Nuah, who met a number of people who were robbed. “They ask you to give everything on you in exchange for your life.”

After a few weeks in Panama, Nuah’s group received a permit to take the bus to Costa Rica. From there he traveled to Nicaragua, then Honduras and on to Guatemala, where he was lucky to not be stalled by immigration authorities.

To get to Mexico, Nuah said his group paid a few dollars to ride boats made of wood and tires across a river. And after three weeks in three different Mexican immigration detention facilities, Nuah said he reached Tijuana.

He stayed in a hotel for three weeks before his number was called on May 3 of last year.

He spent eight days in ICE’s holding cells, then was transferred to an immigration jail in Arizona for 10 days.

His final stop would be at a privately run ICE detention facility in Adelanto, California.

The same facility where Lester Garzon, Urbina Rojas’ former neighbor, was being held.

And Garzon had a friend on the outside who could help them.

A new friend from Spokane

Suzi Hokonson arrived in Tijuana early last year a veteran of activism and disaster relief.

She took multiple trips to Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She traveled to North Dakota several times during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests to support demonstrators at the Standing Rock Reservation.

And she went to Mexico with the intention of volunteering with World Central Kitchen to feed refugees waiting at the border.

But as that work was winding down, she found a greater need with a group of attorneys assisting asylum seekers, called Al Otro Lado. She slept in her Subaru part of the time and later found lodging in a motel two blocks from the law office.

Hokonson was there every morning as registered asylum seekers waited for their cases to progress.

“Some of them waited two months, three months to have their number called, and they had to come every day,” Hokonson said during a January interview.

A select few walked through a large gate and got into a van. People then were stripped of everything but their base layer of clothing before they were locked inside U.S. immigration holding cells commonly referred to as “freezers.”

Hokonson made several trips to San Diego to buy warm sweaters at thrift stores for refugees to help tolerate the uncomfortably cold conditions in the cells. And Eric Henningsen, a friend of Hokonson’s, sent a few thousand dollars worth of Costco wool socks to Tijuana.

About two weeks into her time in Tijuana, she met Urbina Rojas, Lovo Rojas and Garzon while they waited for their numbers to be called.

Urbina Rojas remembered it was a cold morning as Lovo Rojas, the one who knew the most English of the three, communicated with Hokonson about why they were seeking asylum. Eventually Hokonson asked to be their immigration sponsors.

“They just loved seeing me every morning,” said Hokonson, not knowing that sponsorship meant she’d have to raise money for them and pay thousands of dollars in legal fees.

The three men continued to greet and hug Hokonson each day around 7 a.m. until their number was called on Feb. 25, 2019.

About eight days later Hokonson’s phone rang. It was Lovo Rojas calling from immigration detention.

“He said, ‘Miss Suzi, this is Alberto. Please don’t forget about us,” Hokonson remembered.

Two find freedom

Hokonson wrote letters to Garzon, Urbina Rojas and Lovo Rojas more than twice a week as she carefully tracked the latter pair’s moves from facility to facility in the southeastern U.S. English language lessons accompanied them wherever they went.

The letters they sent in return always started warmly with greetings such as “esteemed señora,” and “my great lady” accompanied by wishes of good health.

They grew more heartbreaking from paragraph to paragraph as they detailed dire jail conditions and the bleak prospects of their cases.

Yet, they always ended with hope, love and figurative hugs and kisses.

After Garzon developed a friendship with Nuah – the Cameroonian immigrant with whom he was imprisoned in California – through soccer and exercise, they realized they could help each other with their language skills. Garzon wanted to learn English, and Nuah Spanish.

Then Nuah began translating letters between Hokonson and Garzon.

“I saw that as a challenge for me,” Nuah said. “That’s how we got connected.”

Garzon was released from the facility in late August, and once he reached Spokane he raved about how his friend, Nuah, could speak five languages.

Then Hokonson’s phone rang a week later with Nuah on the other line.

Henningsen, Hokonson’s friend, began corresponding with Nuah during the next few weeks. And eventually Henningsen asked if he could sponsor Nuah.

“It was like the lifesaving question,” Nuah said. “I needed all the help I could get.”

In December, Henningsen and Hokonson traveled to California for Nuah’s immigration court hearing, where a judge set his bond at $25,000. By then Garzon had moved to Las Vegas to live with childhood friends and work while awaiting the outcome of his case.

Henningsen and Hokonson gathered the funds for Nuah’s bond during the weekend, and he was released on Dec. 16, seven months after entering the U.S.

The chief concern at that point for the man who escaped arrest in Cameroon, survived a potentially deadly journey through South and Central America and won temporary freedom from ICE custody?

It was adjusting to an Inland Northwest climate in stark contrast to the warmer weather of Central Africa.

After a 36-hour bus ride from Los Angeles, Nuah arrived in Spokane to 3 inches of snow.

One gets lucky

Unlike Garzon and Nuah, Urbina Rojas and Lovo Rojas found themselves in perhaps the worst possible scenario when they were placed in detention facilities overseen by the New Orleans ICE Field Office.

Through the New Orleans office, which is responsible for Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, parole was granted for two asylum-seekers out of 130 cases in 2018, according to the SPLC. That was a drastic decrease from 2016, when about 75% of detainees were paroled.

And in 2019 that number dropped to zero.

The SPLC and ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against the New Orleans office and the Department of Homeland Security in May 2019 to challenge the blanket denial of parole for asylum -seekers while they have their immigration cases heard.

At least 1,000 asylum -seekers are represented in the class action suit, mostly between Louisiana and Mississippi, where the majority of detention facilities are.

Urbina Rojas and Lovo Rojas had been jailed for three months at the point the lawsuit was filed and already made their way through a few privately run detention facilities between Mississippi and Louisiana. Both were transferred between several immigration jails in all.

Sometimes they were in the same building and could talk face to face. Other times they were separated in a facility and could only wave. Earlier this year they were sent to different detention centers.

Last September, a federal judge determined the parole rate was unacceptable in light of ICE’s own policies and issued a preliminary injunction.

But heading into the new year, the SPLC was still awaiting an update from government officials about parole policies.

At Urbina Rojas’ final immigration hearing early last winter, a judge implied he was lying about the gunshot wounds he suffered in Nicaragua and said they looked more like cigarette burns, according to the refugee.

The judge denied his case. And his only hope was a successful appeal – or so he thought.

SPLC staff attorney Mich Gonzalez was delivering a presentation at the Adams County Correctional Center in Mississippi, a privately run immigration jail covered by its class action lawsuit, when they met Urbina Rojas.

Once Gonzalez heard about Urbina Rojas’ case, the attorney gathered his information and planned to file a motion in an attempt to gain his release.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as a threat to the safety of detainees.

The SPLC named eight asylum -seekers in an emergency motion filed at the end of March.

Not all of them had underlying conditions, but “these are people who ostensibly should be paroled anyways,” Gonzalez said. “These are all people who have been subject to long detention.”

“None of these people have anything in their backgrounds that would suggest they’re a danger to the community,” Gonzalez said, noting how they all sought asylum legally and many have immigration sponsors.

Gonzalez and the SPLC say immigration detention centers are like tinder boxes for highly infectious viruses, like the novel coronavirus or the mumps. Nine COVID-19 cases have been reported at Urbina Rojas’ last facility, according to ICE.

And Gonzalez said detainees continue to be transferred between facilities, increasing the risk of exposure.

“Enclosed group environments, like cruise ships or nursing homes, have become the sites for the most severe outbreaks of COVID-19,” the SPLC motion said. “Immigration detention facilities have even greater risk of infectious spread because of crowding, the proportion of vulnerable people detained, and often scant medical care resources.”

Only about 400 have been tested for COVID-19 nationwide, and a third have been positive, according to the SPLC. Fewer than 700 medically vulnerable detainees have been released.

In a Louisiana facility, some detainees are housed with as many as 100 men in a single dorm and forced to share four toilets, sinks and showers, according to the SPLC.

As many as 72 women are held together in another Louisiana facility with beds within 2 feet of each other. Some reported not having toilet paper for nearly a week in March.

Urbina Rojas, who has a heart condition, lived with 240 other men in the Mississippi facility before his release, sharing six toilets, 12 sinks and a communal shower.

He said he learned about COVID-19 by watching TV news at the facility but no staff addressed the pandemic. And he wondered why no one gave them more supplies or guidance.

“They don’t even give them enough soap, enough toilet paper on a regular basis,” Gonzalez said.

Urbina Rojas said small riots broke out in his living quarters the day he left about the lack of information and precautions. Prison guards handcuffed about 40 men, but he never saw what happened to them.

“They are just immigrants. They are not criminals,” Urbina Rojas said through Nuah. “They came here looking for security.”

Just one other detainee, who is HIV positive, named in the SPLC motion was released ahead of a federal court hearing.

“We know this wasn’t done of their own accord,” said Gonzalez, noting the timing of the releases before a judge heard arguments. “It’s not like they’re tying to release as many people with underlying conditions as possible.”

Among those left in detention was a 50-year-old Cuban breast cancer survivor and engineer in declining health, according to Gonzalez. She hasn’t lost her case and has family waiting in Florida.

That just underscores how lucky Urbina Rojas was to be released.

“Had we not specifically named him in this filing, I am very confident he would not have been released,” Gonzalez said. “It’s beyond dystopian at this point.”

The judge didn’t affirm or deny the SPLC’s motion at the federal court hearing on April 7, Gonzalez said. Instead the government was granted an additional two weeks to provide its response, including a report on how new parole policies were affecting members of the SPLC’s class action suit.

Meanwhile, Urbina Rojas took a flight to Spokane, heartbroken his nephew, who has young kids of his own, wasn’t alongside him.

For a week he stayed in a motel on North Division Street within walking distance of Corbin Park so he could meet Nuah, Henningsen and Hokonson to chat and practice his English a few times a day.

Nuah has become particularly involved in the lessons and communication with lawyers since the community college classes and speaking engagements he scheduled for this spring were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also taken on volunteering opportunities with the Lands Council, a local environmental advocacy organization.

Neither refugee is allowed by the government to work for months.

Because he was quarantined when he arrived, Urbina Rojas moved into a camper van parked at Hokonson’s house, and he began doing the yard work he’d yearned to tackle in numerous letters. He has a cellphone so he can call home to his wife and two young sons in Nicaragua.

Last weekend he celebrated his birthday 6 feet away from the new friends with whom he’s grown close during the last year.

And Saturday at 7 a.m. – three weeks from when he arrived in Spokane – Urbina Rojas moved out of quarantine and into Hokonson’s house.

Today they plan to take him to Mount Spokane to see snow for the first time.

The Inland Northwest is home for Nuah and Urbina Rojas for now. If they aren’t granted asylum at their next court hearings, they are likely to face deportation and violence in their home countries.

The appeal in Urbina Rojas’ case is pending.

Nuah said he feels split between Spokane and Cameroon. He’s constantly reminded of what he left behind, especially during video chats with his young son and girlfriend who remain in Cameroon.

He said he would prefer to return to Cameroon, but there is no end in sight to the violent conflict there. And he feels as if he can’t make long-term plans to stay in the U.S. until the outcome of his asylum hearing in December 2021.

“I don’t want to be so optimistic, but I remain resolute and positive,” Nuah said in January. “You never can tell what the immigration system is going to turn around and say in the next minute.”

And they can only hope those mercurial policy changes fall in favor of Lovo Rojas, as he navigates the second appeal in his asylum case.

One in limbo

Even with a stay of removal in place, Lovo Rojas was nearly deported at the beginning of the month. Attorneys stopped his removal near the airport with a last-second appeal for a circuit court review.

ICE still has him scheduled to be deported in May.

“He had given up completely on the parole process, and he had resigned himself to staying in detention all the way until the end,” Gonzalez, the SPLC attorney said. “I think he resigned himself to losing.”

But midway through an interview with The Spokesman-Review, Urbina Rojas revealed something new about his nephew that hadn’t been shared in letters or with advocates.

Lovo Rojas only has one kidney due to a childhood car accident.

Though it’s not spelled out as a condition that makes one vulnerable to COVID-19, it may just be his last hope if more asylum -seekers with underlying health conditions are granted parole.

“We just have to keep trying,” Gonzalez said.

A federal judge ruled on Monday that ICE must examine custody determinations for asylum -seekers and consider the release of all detainees whose age or health conditions put them at risk for COVID-19.

One COVID-19 case has been reported at Catahoula Correctional Center in Louisiana, a facility for those awaiting deportation where Lovo Rojas is being held. Mother Jones reported more than 80 men were pepper-sprayed there on Monday after asking about their pending deportations in light of the case and lack of safety precautions.

U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal wrote ICE “likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and well-being” of detained asylums seekers, and “evidence suggests systemwide inaction that goes beyond a mere ‘difference of medical opinion or negligence.’ ”

While Lovo Rojas awaits what that ruling means for him, he continues to experience freedom through letters about his uncle riding bikes and working outside.

“The feeling of liberty is marvelous. I can’t wait to be over there and experience it soon,” Lovo Rojas wrote on April 13. “I peeped through my tiny window to see the beautiful moon.

“I’m sure you saw that, too.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that SPLC staff attorney Mich Gonzalez uses the personal pronouns they/them.

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