Over 500,000 Soviet refugees arrived in the United States in the years leading up to and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, making them one of the largest groups resettled here. In a politically complex arrangement, most were religious refugees, particularly after the Lautenberg Amendment of 1989 admitted Soviet Jews to the U.S. without having to show specific religious persecution.
Dennis Batyuchenko came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1991 with his parents. His family had to relinquish their Soviet citizenship in order to leave.
“I was born in Brzesc, [Belarus]. [When I was] 16 years old my dad decided to immigrate to the United States. He asked me if I want to go, and I say, ‘If you want to go, I want to go too’. Since he was young, he was against the Communist Regime, and he took part in movements when Gorbachev came to power. And KGB talked to him. Most of the people who were against the regime, especially in the ‘80s, they were going straight to the psychological hospital.”
Dennis describes his early life in the Soviet Union.
“My dad was actually a political refugee, [but] United States was taking only religious refugees. So [we] got to fit in this category. My mom, she was persecuted because she doesn’t look Russian at all. She had dark hair, dark skin, and the face features were different, so people were prejudice about her. One time when she came [home] she was crying because some guy told her that he was going to beat her up because she was a Jew.
“I suffer some too in the war with the communists. I was putting up fliers against communist party in my school and got caught by the guy who was teaching military science, real communist guy. He bring me to the principal’s office, and they were interrogating me. She put her hand on the phone, telling me, ‘If you are not going to tell me who gave you the order to put those fliers on the school wall, I am going to call the KGB.’ And how I can say, because it was my dad! I could not tell her. I was like 13, 14 years old. I give them the description of the old guy with a beard who gave me the order, like terrorist. Because I could not tell on my dad.
“When we came here, I was in shock. We came to Montana. I thought that the United States is like big cities with skyscrapers, and hookers, and gangster, from the movies and stuff. I was so depressed because you look out the window and you see nothing, [just] mountains. People took me hunting, but I didn’t enjoy at the time. I was missing my city, I was missing my friends.
“I went to school in Montana and I got kicked out because they didn’t have ESL and I didn’t understand what they said. I remember I was sitting in the class and one guy start poking my hair, and I just turned around and start beating him with my fist. I wasn’t an evil guy, I just didn’t know how to express myself. The teacher was good to me, and she didn’t punish me because she understand my situation.
“[Later we moved to Bellevue and] I went to Interlake High School. Again there was no ESL program in school. I had trouble, the teachers weren’t equipped to help me, so I got suspended and they kick me out from Interlake High School too.
“Then I got married and everything went so fast for me. I was 18-19 years old, I wasn’t prepared for reality, psychologically. I married a Russian Jewish girl, and we lived for three years. And then we split up. When we split up, I didn’t know what to look for, so I just start to fill the empty space with negative stuff.”
After a few years of being directionless and making some bad decisions, Dennis was arrested in two separate incidents. Because he had never become a U.S. citizen, he was ordered deported in 1997. By then his home country, the Soviet Union, no longer existed and no other country would accept him.
Since the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now Immigration and Customs Enforcement) could not deport him, they detained him. He spent almost three years in immigration detention, shuffled among the INS building in downtown Seattle, the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac, and county jails in Yakima and Vancouver.
“I got lost in time. I didn’t know what was going on. In terms of times and seasons, I was lost. Being locked up, I faced the reality. I understood my own fragility as a human person.
“I became close to people from Africa, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. When you living together, you have a relationship with somebody heart to heart, not just hi and bye.
“[After a long time in detention] I’m losing control of reality. And then [one day] they suddenly came and told me to get ready to go to the hospital. They chain me around my back and my hands, but they didn’t chain my legs. They put me in a bus in the back and I make myself free from the chains around me. When we come out, I had enough of it. Like when you keep a cat too long in a closed space, he doesn’t think and he just goes. That’s what happened with me. I come out and I start going to the street. I run to the street with the chains and I had the orange jump suit and slippers. So imagine me, with this set of mind, being in closed spaces and lost in time, and I went to the intersection. It was a big road for me, all these cars, and I stopped and I don’t know what to do because I was shocked. It was so much information. I just stopped, like a wild animal, like a kangaroo at the crosswalk. And then, this guy he’s running behind me and he said, “Dennis stop, Dennis stop.” So I turned around, and I look at the road and it was really busy traffic. I got to do something, and I can’t easily escape. I turn to him and I start to swing the chain. And he said, “Dennis don’t, Dennis don’t.” I didn’t hit him because I know it’s not a winning situation. Even if I win this battle, I lose the war anyway. And I just gave up.”
Dennis was among over 200 people in Seattle – and several thousand nationally – in indefinite immigration detention. INS personnel called them “lifers,” because the government believed they could be held for life if they could not be deported.
The detainees fought back, filing petitions in federal court for their release. In June 1999, after Dennis had been detained for more than two years, the detainees had a hearing in federal court in Seattle, and Dennis was among the five test cases the judges decided to hear.
Dennis on his anxiety before appearing a the federal court.
“I had a cigarette before court because I was nervous, probably it was my first cigarette in my whole life. I’m not a smoker, but before court, the guards, they give us a cigarette. And when I was locked up, the cigarette symbolized for me the smell of freedom, because you cannot smoke when you locked up.”
In a unanimous decision, the District Court ruled in favor of the detainees, holding that the government could not keep people detained indefinitely if there was no chance of deporting them in the near future. Dennis and the other Seattle detainees were released. Two years later, the decision was upheld at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Because no country will accept him, Dennis remains in the U.S. as a stateless individual, regularly checking in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He can work legally, but he has no official immigration status, and cannot leave the U.S. or ever become a U.S. citizen.
“Stateless, yeah. Some people who come here with passports, like citizenship, they can go back. But with me it’s different. Life is not dependent on where you live, it’s basically how you live. I can see people coming to America, then they want to go to France, and in France they thinking about Hawaii. And in Hawaii they thinking about something else. For me, I am happy where I am now.
“Most of my deeds were based on pure ignorance, so when I got locked up I felt blessed in some strange way, because it stopped me from wasting my life’s energy on creating more problems for myself and others. While incarcerated, I had a plenty of time to contemplate about my existence and concluded that I, personally, was the source of all the problems in my life. I acquired knowledge and mental tools while in incarceration through reading wide spiritual literature that helped me to fix those problems — not on outside but inside myself. And then, by the mercy of the Creator, I reached balance and happiness, which I value more than all the material possessions. So, in the end, it was all worth it.
“Angelica is my wife, we met approximately a year after I got released from the INS and happily living together for 18 years. And Mark is my son and my best friend. I’m blessed to have them in my life!”