Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on Russian citizens who are seeking asylum in the U.S. and are planning a hunger strike to bring attention to their case.
The sound of rustling loose pages barely cut through the hum of the air conditioning as Tatiana, a mother of two and a Russian asylum seeker, quickly flipped through the binder she held in front of her.
The pages contained a timeline of conversations with Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; conversations that were largely one-sided, said Andrew, another asylum seeker, who had been standing across from Tatiana.
"Yes, these are one-way letters from me, and unresponded. Do you see this?" Tatiana said, turning over page after page as she let out a hint of exhausted laughter. She paused to check the date on one of the documents. It went back to 2019.
Some responses from federal authorities acknowledged her inquiries, which had to do with the ability to travel to the states, but only promised to work on the problem.
"Thank you, we receive. Thank you, but we're not going to do anything," Tatiana said.
Those letters outlined the story of just one family, said Andrew. He and his wife, Kate, have their own collection of letters to customs and immigration officials.
Choice between a fast and slow death
Andrew, Kate, Tatiana and her husband Pavel are part of a group of asylum seekers from Russia who are organizing a hunger strike on March 1 to support their appeals. The group highlights two main concerns: CBP blocking travel to the states and the length of time it is taking to process their asylum claims.
A countdown to the hunger strike is highlighted on the group's website. The site also chronicles the actions and demonstrations taken so far, without much success. The hunger strike is the outcome they feel is needed to draw attention to their circumstances and resolve what they consider to be a violation of rights granted by international convention.
A message to the public contains a stark warning, that should any harm come to the strikers, to hold accountable CBP and the local government, including the governor and delegate. They will also exercise self defense in case of attack.
There is just a choice between a fast and slow death, Andrew said, speaking through Tatiana.
In addition to Andrew, Tatiana and their spouses, The Guam Daily Post spoke with Russian asylum seekers Yurii, Igor and his wife Marina, and Natalia and her husband Sergei about their concerns and plans for the strike. They requested to use only their first names.
Fleeing to Guam
Guam has been host to many Russians fleeing political persecution in their country. A now-rescinded parole program for Russian nationals allowed easier entry into Guam and the CNMI, and made for an important commodity when in need of quick escape.
"Since we had to run to leave, we did not have much time and we did not have visas at that moment because we did not plan to immigrate ... we were saving our lives," said Kate, speaking on how she and her husband came to Guam.
One needs to be on U.S. soil to apply for asylum in the U.S. The island being a U.S. territory and the former parole program were important factors to choosing Guam, said Tatiana. Another is that it is "very far from Russia."
The number of new Russian asylum applications in the U.S. hit a 24-year high in 2017, maintaining upward trends following the 2012 reelection of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a 2018 report from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Tatiana participated in protests in Russia. Disagreements with the Russian government are seriously punished, she said. Igor, whose country of origin is predominately Muslim, said he experienced racial discrimination in Russia.
Now in Guam, some Russian asylum seekers have attempted to travel to the states - some to find work, others due to medical needs.
Those seeking medical treatment attempted to leave "either because of the price of medical services or because they just don't have doctors (on island) who can cure their health-related problem," Kate said.
That isn't unique. Island residents regularly leave Guam to pursue medical care in the states or elsewhere.
But CBP is preventing these asylum seekers from boarding flights to Honolulu, finding them inadmissible through the pre-inspection process under federal law.