NORWALK — Ruth has always described herself as a “tough cookie.”
The 24-year-old sports a boyish mop of short brown hair with faded streaks of red atop a round, tan face. When we met, she wore jeans and a hoodie in the blazing summer heat.
One would have to be tough to endure 13-hour shifts — plus mandatory overtime — of fast-paced manual labor, six to seven days a week, in a garden center warehouse. According to Ruth, this is typical of the peak time at Corso’s Flower & Garden Center, where she’s worked for three seasons. These days she works on about three hours of sleep each night, and plenty of Red Bull.
Perhaps Ruth’s grittiness originated back in her native town of Morelia, in central Mexico. She was only a toddler when she and her mother traveled in a group through the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, a notorious hotbed of narcotics and weapons gangs. Ruth remembers hearing gunshots as some members of the group were gunned down.
Ruth crossed into the U.S., made a detour to North Carolina, and eventually ended up with family in Northwestern Ohio. She still has clear mental images of arid landscapes dotted with thorny bushes.
“I scraped myself on one of them running away from a helicopter,” Ruth recalled.
In spite of her toughness, Ruth wasn’t prepared to watch as, on what seemed like a typical Tuesday morning two weeks ago, federal immigration officials hauled away her 60-year-old mother, Anita, in handcuffs.
“I’m not someone who likes to cry,” Ruth said. “But I definitely broke down.”
As Ruth and her mother pulled up to Bardshar Road in Castalia on the morning of June 5, they saw an immigration van parked at the corner. They didn’t think much of it; they had seen the vans before. Maybe it was just a routine patrol, they thought. Immigration police had never confronted them at work.
This time, a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officer stopped them. He asked for their documents and asked if they were U.S. citizens.
“We just stayed silent for a minute, thinking, ‘Yeah, this is happening,’” Ruth said.
That morning, about 200 federal immigration agents from ICE, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol arrested 114 workers at Corso’s two facilities in Castalia and Sandusky. Sandusky Police said they had no jurisdiction and were not notified of the coming raid.
Two weeks later, the crackdown in Northeast Ohio continued as ICE on Tuesday afternoon arrested 146 undocumented immigrants working at four Fresh Mark meat company locations.
Corso’s has been under investigation since October. A Marion woman who was arrested for operating a fake ID mill led investigators to the company, where feds found more than 100 suspect documents, including Social Security numbers that apparently belonged to dead people. The Toledo Blade reported 44-year-old Martha Buendia-Chavarria, who made some of the fake documents, pled guilty in federal court to a slew of charges including manufacturing fraudulent documents and aggravated identity theft. She will be sentenced on October 9.
In a statement released two days after the raid, Corso’s assured the public it “demands proper documentation” from all prospective employees. Indeed, Corso’s application requires new hires to provide identification, personal references and proof of citizenship or immigration status. The application also authorizes Corso’s to independently verify all of the provided information. According to the statement, the company “was not aware” of any employees using fake papers. The company has hired an attorney and public relations firm Dix & Eaton to handle its post-raid communications, but is not currently facing any criminal charges. The company’s attorney has not returned calls.
Miranda, another former Corso’s employee, said the morning of the raid felt like any other day. She arrived for work around 7 a.m. She remembers she didn’t have time to eat breakfast at home that morning. As she ate a last-minute breakfast in the employee cafeteria, she heard federal agents shouting.
It didn’t immediately occur to her that she was in the middle of an immigration raid. Then she saw the helicopters, the dogs, and the swarm of federal agents.
With zip ties around her hands, Miranda was loaded onto a bus and driven up to the border patrol’s Sandusky Bay Station in Port Clinton for processing. She said the building was cold and there wasn’t much to eat or drink other than cookies and water. After several hours, she was given a burrito.
After processing, the workers were split up among various detainment facilities, including the Seneca and Geauga County jails, and the Calhoun County Jail in Michigan. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur visited the Michigan jail this week where 31 of the female detainees were being held. She said about 10 of them told her they ended up in Ohio after paying labor traffickers to help them find jobs. That “terrible underbelly of labor,” as Kaptur described it, exists partly because of robust demand for workers in the agricultural industry and a low supply of people willing to work the low-skill, low-pay positions.
More than 100 landscape companies in Northeast Ohio depend on workers through the H-2B visa program. The Ohio Landscape Association said two thirds of those companies were denied workers this year.
The Department of Homeland Security issues 66,000 such visas each year for seasonal immigrant workers, and added 15,000 additional ones for 2018 after complaints that business owners were understaffed. Kaptur estimates Ohio needs about 20,000 such workers, and the industry is attempting to lobby Congress to increase that number.
“This is not good," the Ohio Landscape Association said after the raid, "but maybe highlights the need for usable guest worker programs.”
Kaptur described the facilities housing the female detainees as clean and well managed.
Cleveland immigration attorney Jason Lorenzon disagreed, generally summarizing the state of detention facilities in two words: “It’s awful.”
Short of being incarcerated, it’s hard to get first-hand knowledge of conditions inside detainment centers, where inmates are mostly isolated from the outside world. Lorenzon said it’s even difficult for him to get in to talk with his own clients. Inmates can only make outgoing calls, either by calling collect and hoping somebody will accept the call, or by using money from their commissary account. Depending on the jail, commissary funds can take anywhere from a day to a week to clear.
Because jails, unlike prisons, are designed for short-term detainments, conditions tend to be cramped and there is little to do but sit and wait. The conditions are apparently so bad that some inmates, including Ruth’s mother, would rather sign deportation papers and return to Mexico than stay in jail.
Those who do stay — in cells, cages, or out on bond — face a long and complicated legal process. As the Washington Post and others have pointed out, simply being present and undocumented in the U.S. is a civil offense. For example, overstaying a temporary visa does not make someone a criminal. However, crossing the border without permission is a crime. Officials expect to charge many of the undocumented workers with tax evasion and identity theft.
The raid at Corso’s has created a huge backlog, slowing down an already opaque and sluggish bureaucracy. Detainees could wait for years before they get to see an immigration judge, of which Cleveland only has four. Attorneys who need to perform simple record checks are up against a patchwork of different record-keeping systems. Even though ICE, USCIS and CPB all operate under the Department of Homeland Security, sharing records between the agencies is a remarkably cumbersome endeavor, according to Lorenzon.
ICE offers an online detainee locator, which simply provides a person’s custody status and current detention facility. But basic information about who was arrested is coming out in trickles through family members and those currently out on bond. Court documents related to the raid, including arrest warrants, are being kept sealed, allowing DHS to operate with little to no public accountability. About 90 people were still detained as of last week, according to ICE.
Miranda is back home with her five children in a Norwalk trailer park, waiting for a court date. She considers herself lucky, even though the tracking device around her right ankle is a constant reminder that her nightmare is only beginning. She doesn’t have a lawyer yet, and she isn’t sure how she’ll pay for a lawyer if she finds one. Immigration officials told her she can’t go back to work until she gets a valid Social Security number.
“What happened is very painful, very sad,” she said on the steps of her trailer as her children occasionally peeked through the front door.
She’s not alone in wondering how she will support her family. At a rally for Corso’s employees, the wife of one of the men picked up in the raid told the Sandusky Register: “My five-year-old daughter has a hard time understanding why her dad has not returned home to her,” Sarah Black said. “Ten years my husband has been working at Corso’s, and this is such a terrible situation to be in. We need him home. My children need their father home. My husband is the sole provider of this family and he was ambushed at work and forced to leave his family behind. He belongs in this community with his family.”
A spokesperson for Marcy Kaptur addressed the complications facing undocumented parents, many of whom have been in the country for years, whose children who are U.S. citizens.
"The sad part is that there are women and men who have U.S. citizen children who know nothing other than living in the United States," Kaptur’s spokesperson Theresa Morris said. "If the parents go back, what happens to the children? Do they stay here and enter into a foster situation that is already burdened by the opioid epidemic and other issues? These are questions we have to answer."
HOLA Ohio, a grassroots organization comprised of just four staff members and a group of volunteers, has been leading on-the-ground efforts to meet the immediate needs of families affected by the raid. The group is working to identify who was detained and where, helping detainees get lawyers, and raising money for commissary accounts so detainees can talk to legal counsel and their families. According to the organization, more than 200 children are currently dealing with the loss of one or both parents who were picked up in the raid. HOLA is donating gift cards, food, toys and basic supplies like diapers and toiletries.
A Tiffin medical company recently partnered with HOLA to provide families in the trailer park with basic medical care. On a hot Friday morning, a small team of physicians in scrubs came to the trailer park and set up an ad hoc clinic in a squat brick building that used to serve as the post office. They also made house calls to individual trailers.
Nurses first examined Carmen, a woman whose 20-year-old daughter, Fabiola, is being detained in Michigan. A handful of family friends crowded onto the trailer’s small wooden porch and the modestly furnished living room. They spoke in hushed voices, barely audible above the hum of a window A/C unit.
Veronica Dahlberg, the founder and executive director of HOLA, wished the doctors could have come sooner. Just one day earlier, Carmen’s son Silvano died suddenly. Carmen said her son became listless and pale after learning his sister was detained. He stopped eating. The two siblings were extremely close; Silvano often wouldn’t start a meal until Fabiola was at the table, Carmen said.
It’s not clear if Silvano, who was 24 years old, had a medical condition that contributed to his death. Carmen said she had taken him to the hospital in Norwalk months before, but doctors didn’t find anything wrong with him. In an email to Scene, an ICE spokesman declined to comment because Silvano himself was not detained.
Carmen now faces a terrible choice: either return to Mexico with her son’s remains, or stay close to her daughter.
As we spoke in her doorway, "Jane" recalled a time — mere weeks ago — when children would play outside among the cramped rows of pastel-colored trailers reminiscent of Mexican shantytowns. The narrow roads are lined with cars and pickup trucks, some of which are still proudly ornamented with American flags. But even before the raid, things weren’t completely carefree. Parents always kept a close watch on their kids. Fears of deportation were a constant presence in the backs of parents’ minds.
"Jane" was due to give birth to her fourth child the day after the raid. Fortunately, she said, her infant son was born a few days early. He napped quietly on the couch as we spoke. "Jane" is thankful she didn’t have to give birth in a detention center. But now she doesn’t know how she’ll pay rent or provide for her new child and his older siblings. She’s trying to find a lawyer to help her find a legal guardian in case anything happens to her.
The Corso’s raid and the ensuing departure of dozens of families have turned the mobile home community into a ghost town blanketed in eerie silence and controlled by sadness and fear. The mere passing of a strange car strikes panic in the residents and fuels rumors of another coming raid. Parents command their young children to stay indoors. They struggle to explain why it’s not safe to go outside anymore. Residents eye the news media with suspicion and worry TV footage could lead the police right to their doorsteps. And they’re sick of talking to reporters who are eager to get the story but offer no compassion in return.
As chaos gives way to simmering uncertainty, "Jane" said she’s not afraid to go back to Mexico, “Pero no de esa manera,” she said through tears.
Not this way.