Rally for Ansly Damus outside Brooklyn Heights ICE office, photo by Eric Sandy
Two years ago, Ansly Damus stepped across the southern border into the U.S. and landed in jail. The former ethics teacher from a small commune in northern Haiti was quickly transferred by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to Geauga County, Ohio, where he has remained behind bars since October 2016.
As an immigrant fleeing political persecution and violence at home, Damus was granted asylum on two occasions by Judge Alison Brown of the Cleveland Immigration Court, in April 2017 and January 2018. ICE, a federal agency, has repeatedly denied his release from its custody.
This individual conflict is part of a broader trend that has seen the national asylum release rate (the rate at which asylum seekers are approved and released from detention) drop to nearly zero percent in the U.S. Just a few years ago, according to Judge James E. Boasberg of the Washington, D.C., federal district court, that rate was closer to 90 percent.
Boasberg's observation came earlier this year in the form of a judicial order issued in a class-action lawsuit against government officials like Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, ICE Acting Director William Joyce and ICE Detroit Field Office Director Rebecca Adducci.
The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU on behalf of nine prisoners in ICE custody. Damus was, and is, the lead plaintiff.
In his July 2 order, Boasberg condemned ICE's indefinite detention of immigrants. He ordered ICE to recommit to individual reviews of asylum cases and to release detainees who meet qualifying criteria.
“In so doing, this Opinion does no more than hold the Government accountable to its own policy,” Boasberg wrote, “which recently has been honored more in the breach than the observance. Having extended the safeguards of the Parole Directive to asylum-seekers, ICE must now ensure that such protections are realized.”
ICE has... not complied with this order.
Asylum release rates have risen to 19 percent, 27 percent, 17 percent, 42 percent and 18 percent across the agency's five Field Offices between July 2 and mid-October. The ACLU has argued on behalf of the plaintiffs in this case, including Damus, that they, “believe that the five Field Offices are not following that injunction.” Boasberg has permitted “limited discovery” to prove their point, according to an Oct. 22 memorandum opinion. (The five Field Offices in question include Detroit, which oversees the Geauga County Jail; El Paso; Los Angeles; Newark and Philadelphia.)
Litigation continues, and, still, Damus and more than 1,000 other asylum seekers await word from the bench.
To complicate matters further, Damus was denied his third asylum request by that same local immigration judge, Alison Brown, earlier this month. The deadline to appeal is today, Oct. 24. Pending a reversal, Damus has been ordered removed to Haiti.
Local supporters are holding a prayer vigil for Damus “and all other immigrants that this administration treats as criminals when they are not,” according to Gary Benjamin, a Cleveland Heights resident and a friend of Damus, at 4 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Brooklyn Heights ICE office. All are welcome.
The denial and the vigil are only the latest notches in Damus' circuitous history. The story begins two years earlier in a small commune in northern Haiti, when he was working as an ethics teacher. He “named a local government official—Benjamin Ocenjac —as an example of someone who works with gangs to terrorize the population.” That same day, he was pulled off his motorcycle and beaten in the street. Members of “La Meezorequin”—the Shark Bones Army, which supports Ocenjac politically—had found out about Damus' public words.
“They set my motorcycle on fire and threatened to kill me,” he wrote in a personal essay translated and published by the ACLU of Ohio
earlier this year . “Fearing for my life, I fled Haiti 10 days later, leaving behind my wife, two young children, parents, and siblings. I was in Brazil for 18 months, living first at a refugee camp, and later in a shared, rented room. I found work in construction but faced discrimination. I was told I was an animal, that people like me were flooding the country to steal jobs. There was no life for me there, but I was afraid to go back to Haiti.”
Damus arrived at the California border in October 2016 after getting by for two years on a temporary worker visa in Brazil. The political climate that awaited him in the U.S was somewhat different than before. Since 2009, ICE's asylum release policy has been governed by an internal directive: an individual who has established a credible fear of persecution in his or her home country, via an interview with the federal agency, will be released from detention on parole—pending a full hearing. Asylum seekers are not law-breakers; they are, by virtue of the act of seeking asylum, victims.
Gary Benjamin and Melody Hart, a Cleveland Heights couple, have offered to sponsor Damus and allow him to live with them. Their pleas and paperwork have gone ignored by the federal government. Damus remains no closer to freedom than he was 24 months ago. Farther away, in fact.
In 2014, Geauga County Commissioners Mary Samide and Blake Rear joined county Auditor Frank Gliha for a “symbolic burning of the mortgage,” according to the News-Herald
. The county had paid off the $15-million Safety Center building, and now it was free to enjoy a more open line of revenue.
“I like to only half-joke that I run the largest hotel in the county. But there’s a lot of symbolic truth to that,” then-Sheriff Dan McClelland said. “The concept was build it bigger than you need, and use the surplus space to provide a money stream. As Geauga County’s needs unfortunately grow, you would house fewer [outside inmates], but you wouldn’t have to build more.”
The money stream is flowing. ICE detainees often make up one-third to one-half of the Geauga County Jail's 183-bed capacity.
In the past 12 months, 170 ICE detainees have been removed from detention at Geauga County Jail “because they were deported, were released under supervision while their cases were being decided, or left ICE detention for one of a variety of other reasons,” according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University. All told though, Geauga County Jail has housed 715 detainees in the past 12 months; the 545 other people remained in ICE custody and/or were transferred to other detention facilities.
And still others, including Damus, simply remained. (“'Safety Center' is a strange name for a jail with no outdoor space, where immigrant detainees are kept in windowless rooms,” Damus wrote in March 2018.)
The ICE detainees are part of a much broader narrative in the U.S., a tale told in local jails, case by case.
The contracts that uphold this immigrant detention are called “intergovernmental service agreements” (IGSAs), and they serve a transactional purpose for municipalities and county agencies. (Other ICE contracts are signed with a growing contingent of privately owned prisons.)
The IGSA signed between ICE and the city of Bedford Heights, for instance, sets forth a cost of $65 per INS detainee per day. The IGSA was signed in 2003. It “shall remain in effect indefinitely until terminated by either party.”
Generally, IGSAs signed with local governments run along similar lines. ICE pays the Seneca County Jail $58 per INS detainee per day (signed in 1996 and effective indefinitely). ICE pays the Butler County Jail $53.20 per INS detainee per day (signed in 2003 and effective indefinitely). ICE pays the Morrow County Jail $53.64 per INS detainee per day (signed in 2009, effective for 60 months and extended periodically since then).
“ICE bailed us out for a lot of years,” Morrow County Commissioner Tom Whiston said at an Aug. 1 meeting, according to the Morrow County Sentinel
, when the topic of ICE revenue came up. In 2017, the Morrow County brought in $726,714.72 from the ICE contract – a majority of jail revenue.
An open FOIA request to obtain the IGSA between ICE and the Geauga County Jail has gone unanswered. But according to records obtained by WKYC and published in an Oct. 3, 2018, story, Geauga County has received “nearly $4.5 million since 2014” in IGSA transactions. “ICE pays the county $75 per day for each detainee,” WKYC reported.
"We felt if we can generate some revenue for the county that we owed it to the taxpayers to do that," current Geauga County Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand told the news station. "ICE has determined they need to be incarcerated. We provide that service.”
Federal Judge James E. Boasberg's order on July 2
speaks to a marked increase and a “systematic” trend in ICE detentions in the U.S. “Pointing to the fact that parole rates have plummeted from over 90 percent to nearly zero, as well as to testimony from detained asylum-seekers and their counsel,” Boasberg wrote, the plaintiffs in this case “assert that the Government is no longer following its own  Parole Directive. Plaintiffs allege that, rather than providing individualized determinations and procedural safeguards, [the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE,] is now engaging in systematic detention.”
The cultural and political impact of the Trump administration is palpable. Amid a phalanx of anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies, the plummeting asylum release rate is seen as another shot at deterrence
. At the very least, as Boasberg points out, this arm of the federal government is disregarding its own directive. “To mandate that ICE provide these baseline procedures to those entering our country—individuals who have often fled violence and persecution to seek safety on our shores—is no great judicial leap,” he wrote in his order this summer.
The policy shift is seen across the federal government. This past spring, the U.S. Department of Justice placed a new quota on immigration judges: 700 cases per year.
“It’s our belief that such measures will undermine the public’s faith in the fairness of our courts, leading to a huge increase in appeals and legal challenges that in turn will create crippling delays in our already overburdened immigration courts and flood the federal courts of appeal as well,” the National Association of Immigration Judges wrote in a public statement. “If history has taught us any lessons, it is that attempts to streamline like this ultimately will increase the backlog.”
Judge Alison Brown, the Cleveland Immigration Court magistrate who's overseen Damus' journey through detention, is one voice in that clamor. Her twice-over approval of Damus' asylum claim is actually uncommon; according to Syracuse University's TRAC, Brown denied 65 percent of the asylum cases that landed on her desk between 2012 and 2017. (During this same period, immigration judges nationwide denied 53 percent of asylum cases.) Less than 1 percent of Brown's cases have involved immigrants from Haiti.
Her denial of Damus' third asylum request, however, casts a darker light on his fate.
“I have not felt fresh air in my lungs or the sun on my face for more than a year,” Damus wrote earlier this year
. “I spend my days in near total isolation, finding comfort only when I’m reading my Bible.”
For Gary Benjamin and Melody Hart, the Cleveland Heights couple hoping to sponsor Damus' freedom and organizing rallies and vigils and a #FreeAnsly social media campaign, the odyssey through the backwaters of ICE detention contracts has not been uplifting.
The couple started visiting Damus earlier in 2018, empathizing with his plight and hoping to lend a bit of domestic credence to his cause. He is allowed two half-hour visits per week at the Geauga County Jail, and so they set to work and applied for a sponsorship. They gathered letters of support from the local religious community, and they tracked down his wife in Haiti. “Thank goodness for Google Translate,” Hart told Scene.
As time slowly wore on, Damus would write letters to his wife and Hart would make sure that they got to her. Only in the past two months have Damus and his wife been able to communicate at all. Now, they speak every Sunday.
“I know that I am not the only one in this situation, and this isn’t the way that it should be in the United States,” Damus wrote. “Growing up, I always heard talk about America and its promise. In previous years, those who sought asylum were released on humanitarian parole while their cases were decided, but now the government has simply stopped letting people out.”