Ohio is far from the U.S. southern border, but the policies and practices there are playing out here daily. The Cleveland Immigration Court has a caseload numbering in the thousands. Ohio jails and private prisons are collecting millions of dollars to house immigrants. And immigrant families who have lived in Ohio for years are planning their departures. Ohio is playing a big role in the national immigration debate.
On one wall of the commissary in the Geauga County jail -- across from the Ramen noodles and orange gym shoes -- is a rack with a half-dozen suitcases, each containing the worldly possessions of someone about to be deported.
Jail Administrator Lt. Kathy Rose says the bags are one sign departure is just weeks, days, even hours away. Another sign is the last visits she arranges between those facing deportation and their families.
“They get to sit in one of those multi-purpose rooms with that person. But we’re very clear on the rules,” she explains. Hugs are allowed as a greeting and goodbye, but no more. She acknowledges it’s tough to witness, especially when children are involved.
Ohio is 1,600 miles from the U.S. southern border, but the policies and practices there are playing out here daily. According to the Syracuse University TRAC database on immigration, the Cleveland Immigration Court, which covers the entire state, had 3,699 new immigration cases filed through June. If the pace continues, it will climb to nearly 5,000 cases by the time the fiscal year ends in September.
Monthly snapshots from the TRAC reports show the number of immigrants in Ohio jails and private prisons has more than doubled since the last months of the Obama administration, largely because of a new federal contract with CoreCivic, which operates the private prison in Youngstown and has come under fire for its border operations.
Meanwhile, though Immigration and Customs Enforcement brings many of the detainees from elsewhere, immigrant families who have lived in Ohio for years are also planning their departures.
Geauga is one of five Ohio lockups housing immigrants awaiting asylum claims or facing deportation. The others are in Seneca, Butler and Morrow counties and the private prison in Youngstown. Since September of 2017, the five facilities have been housing 500 to 600 people in ICE custody per month.
Geauga Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand says his 182-bed jail has more space than it needs for local cases, so it’s fiscally responsible to open the doors to ICE detainees. It’s worth more than a million dollars a year to the county.
He notes his jail began housing immigrants before Donald Trump became president and his immigration policies took effect.
“Immigration sends us the detainees and we house them for them. It’s not our job to figure out if that was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do,” he says.
Geauga generally houses 40 to 50 people a day. About 90 percent are men; more than half have no previous criminal records; most face final orders of deportation -- though for some, those orders had been on hold for years.
The Geauga facility bears no resemblance to the images of squalid and overcrowded border camps that have dominated the national news. Jail administrator Rose shows off a pristine kitchen (“the largest restaurant in the county,” she jokes), open dorms, rec rooms, and a medical clinic.
She says her jail treats everyone equally.
“Regardless of if they’re out of common pleas, muni courts, if we’re holding them for another agency (or) they’re immigration, they’re all human beings,” she says.
But, there are differences. We step into a room, with a single chair in front of a small black screen. This is immigration court.
“The federal court in Cleveland has a video connection with us so they dial in on the mornings that we have court,” Rose explains.
The video link is often the only connection between the judges in Cleveland and the men and women whose asylum and deportation cases they’ll decide.
Interpreters are patched in to the hearings, but the people in detention often are in the room alone. Technically, this is a civil proceeding. So unlike in criminal cases, detainees get no lawyer unless they pay for them or find a volunteer.
And the vast majority of those cases will end in their removal from the country, either through deportation or what’s considered voluntary departure.
Elizabeth Knowles’ immigration clinic at the University of Akron specializes in a subset of the immigration cases: asylum cases. They’re people who under international and U.S. law can show that returning to their home countries could be, literally, deadly. They account for less than 5 percent of the cases in Ohio.
Knowles outlines a labyrinth of a process that often begins at the border with what’s called a credible fear interview, showing the person is trying to escape persecution. Then some are shipped to Ohio where judges here decide their cases. She tells her clients to expect rejection.
“They have to fear returning to their home country because of persecution by a government actor based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or that they’re a member of a particular social group and that they cannot avail themselves of the protection of their own govt. It’s a long definition, but its a narrow definition," Knowles said.
In the best of times, she says the process often means months waiting in jail, though these are “people who haven’t broken the law, who are trying to get protection that they’re entitled to seek.”
The Syracuse database shows just 20 percent of the asylum cases filed in Ohio from 2013 to 2018 were granted by the four immigration judges in Cleveland.
Knowles says some of her clients with strong asylum claims have simply given up rather than remain in jail.
On a broader level, Knowles -- like most immigration advocates -- acknowledges problems with the immigration system preceded President Trump. Over the last decade, many advocates described it as a broken system, and caseloads and wait times soared in 2016.
But Knowles says the situation has been growing worse over the last two years with more people held in detention (at a cost averaging about $140 a night) rather being released on bond. There’s less discretion among immigration judges and prosecutors, she says.
“It’s just becoming more and more adversarial in everyway possible,” she says. “There’s a lot more hard lines coming from upper ICE folks. Even where people at the local level might want to negotiate, they’re prevented from doing so by higher ups.”
And perhaps most damaging, she asserts, is a tone that dehumanizes immigrants -- whether they’re newcomers who are openly seeking asylum or people who slipped without authorization into the country more than a decade ago. (The TRAC snapshots show a quarter to nearly half of those held in Ohio jails and prisons have been in the U.S. for 10 years or more.)
If trends hold, four-out-of-five of the immigration cases decided in Cleveland will end with people being shipped out. The greatest number of them are Guatemalans, Mexicans and Hondurans, people like Patrona, who requested we use only her first name.
Her husband and young son, Sam, had entered the U.S. without authorization about four years ago. Gangs in Guatemala, she says, were threatening to kill them if he didn’t turn over proceeds from his trucking business. She joined her husband in Ohio two years later, and they now have a 2-year-old American-born daughter.
But her husband was taken into ICE custody during one of his regular check-ins two years ago -- then jailed and deported.
“It completely destroyed our life,” she says through an interpreter who speaks her derivation of an ancient Mayan language. Like many Guatemalans in Ohio, her native language is not Spanish.
That means much of Patrona’s navigation of the immigration system now relies on her now 12-year-old son, Sam. He’s trilingual, an avid “Fortnite” player and hopes to be either a soccer player or a lawyer.
He remembers the day his father disappeared from his life. “I cried, and I think I didn’t eat for like a week,” he said. “I loved my dad, and he loved us.”
Sam’s mother still attends her bimonthly ICE check-ins. She hopes to convince people she’s a good person who wants “to be a good role model for others.”
But she’s also expecting her own deportation and making arrangements to take her son back to a country he barely remembers and her daughter -- an American citizen -- to a place she’s never been.
Ohio’s evolving immigration detention picture, by the numbers
Ohio ranked 22nd in the nation in the number of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees in September 2016, the last monthly snapshot of the Obama administration done by the Syracuse University TRAC database. A year later, Ohio had moved up to 15th, largely because of a new agreement with the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, a private prison run by CoreCivic near Youngstown.The prison continues to hold the largest number of people detained in Ohio, but county jails in Geauga, Butler, Seneca and Morrow also have agreements to house asylum seekers and those facing deportation.
According to TRAC immigration snapshots, here’s the distribution:
September 2016 (Obama administration)
- All 249 total, 224 men, 25 women
- Butler 114 total, 105 men, 9 women
- Seneca 59 total, 48 men, 11 women
- Geauga 42 total, 38 men, 4 women
- Morrow 34 total, 33 men, 1 woman
- All 557 total, 539 men, 18 women
- Mahoning (Youngstown) 200 total, 200 men
- Butler 157 total, 146 men, 11 women
- Seneca 92 total, 88 men, 4 women
- Geauga 72 total, 71 men, 1 women
- Morrow 34 total, 32 men, 2 women
- Cuyahoga 2 total, 2 men
- All 586 total, 559 men, 27 women
- Mahoning (Youngstown) 302 total, 302men
- Butler 95 total, 94 men, 1 women
- Seneca 66 total, 59 men, 7 women
- Geauga 63 total, 52 men, 11 women
- Morrow 60 total 52 men 8 women
- All 623 total, 592 men, 31 women
- Mahoning (Youngstown) 296 total, 296 men
- Butler 142 total, 137 men, 5 women
- Seneca 83 total, 67 men, 16 women
- Geauga 58 total, 52 men, 6 women
- Morrow 44 total, 49 men, 4 women
- All 566 total, 548 men, 17 women, 1 undetermined
- Mahoning (Youngstown) 304 total, 304 men
- Butler 120 total, 111 men, 8 women, 1 undetermined
- Geauga 53 total, 47 men, 6 women
- Seneca 51 total, 49 men, 2 women
- Morrow 38 total, 37 men, 1 woman
- All 519 total, 497 men, 21 women, 1 undetermined
- Mahoning (Youngstown) 268 total, 268 men
- Butler 122 total, 112 men, 9 women, 1 undetermined
- Seneca 50 total, 45 men, 5 women
- Geauga 46 total, 40 men, 6 women
- Morrow 33 total, 32 men, 1 woman
A shift in criminal backgrounds
Monthly snapshots show the total number of people being held in Ohio jails and prisons since the last months of the Obama administration has more than doubled. But there’s also been a change in the criminal backgrounds of those being held. Nearly 60 percent of those detained under Obama had previous criminal convictions. That’s dropped under the Trump administration to close to 40 percent.
Percent with prior criminal convictions
- Sept. 2016: 58.2%
- Sept. 2017: 57.6%
- June 2018: 39.9%
- Nov. 2018: 40.6%
- Dec. 2018: 41.2%
Top 5 previous convictions
DUIs had made up the biggest cluster of those with prior criminal convictions. But the most recent snapshots show “illegal entry” has moved into first place.
Sept. 2016 (145 total)
- DUIs 32
- Assault 12
- Domestic violence 8
- Disorderly conduct 8
- Public order crime 7
Sept. 2017 (321 total)
- DUIs 36
- Traffic 34
- Assault 25
- Sex assault 15
- Robbery 13
June 2018 (234 total)
- DUIs 28
- Illegal entry 23
- Traffic offense 17
- Assault 13
- Larceny 10
Nov. 2018 (230 total)
- Illegal entry 39
- DUI s 20
- Traffic offense 20
- Disorderly conduct 15
- Assault 14
Dec. 2018 (214 total)
- Illegal entry 52
- DUI 24
- Traffic offense 13
- Assault 12
- Disorderly conduct 11
Ohio’s total deportation cases ratchet up
Through June of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30th, 3,699 new deportation proceedings have been filed in Cleveland Immigration Court (which covers the state). A total of 4,361 were filed for the fiscal year ending last Sept. 30.
Here’s the breakdown of charges in cases filed in 2019
- Entry without inspection: 60.1%
- Other immigration charges: 33.9%
- Aggravated felony: 0.5%
- Other criminal charge: 1.3%
- Other: 4.1%
Here’s the breakdown of charges in cases filed in 2018
- Entry without inspection: 51%
- Other immigration charges: 41.8%
- Aggravated felony: 1.1%
- Other criminal charge: 2.5%
- National security: 0% (1 case)
- Other: 3.6%
The top five nationalities listed in cases both years are:
- Guatemala 1,201
- Mexico 659
- Honduras 582
- El Salvador 245
- India 133
There were 2,511 cases in FY 2016, under the Obama administration.
Here’s the breakdown of cases filed in 2016
- Entry without inspection: 51.2%
- Other immigration charges: 37%
- Aggravated felony: 1.6%
- Other criminal charge: 3.5%
- National security: 0.1
- Other: 6.7%
The top five nationalities listed for cases in 2016 are:
- El Salvador
Among deportation cases decided through June of this fiscal year, 80.8 percent ended with decisions for removals or “voluntary departures.” Nationally, the percentage was 74.5 percent.
The narrow window for asylum
Filing for asylum is a relative rarity in Ohio, and even more rarely is it granted. Asylum cases filed here now are often by people picked up at the southern border and sent to Ohio detention facilities after passing what are called “credible fear” initial interviews.
Asylum is a legal status sought by non-citizens who claim they would be in danger if they returned to their home countries. U.S. law requires they demonstrate all of the following::
They can’t return to their home country due to past persecution or a “well-founded” fear of persecution if return. The persecution can come from the government or from people the government can’t or won’t control.
The persecution springs from the applicant’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
Applcants have committed no acts prohibited by U.S. law.including serious crimes, persecuting others or being a threat to national security.
Decisions on asylum applications are made by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review via immigration courts
Figures tracked from 2013 through 2018 show four Cleveland Immigration Court judges considered a total of 1,257 cases from 2013 through 2018, and granted just 20 percent of them. The lowest percentage was 8.8 percent. The highest was 29.3 percent.