It was from two small faces on a video monitor that Ansly Damus learned the trees outside his jail cell were turning colors. It was late October, and Damus, a 42-year-old former teacher from Haiti who legally claimed asylum at the border in 2016, had not been allowed outside in two years.
The faces belonged to Melody Hart and Gary Benjamin, a couple in their 60s who for the past eight months had been making the hourlong drive from Cleveland to visit Damus nearly every week. They’d never seen him in person. Inmates in the Geauga County jail can only speak to friends and family through webcams, and Hart and Benjamin were sitting in a narrow room with 10 screens. The room was mostly empty, save for two other groups huddled around video monitors. As they talked to Damus, a timer on Benjamin’s cellphone counted down from 30 minutes, after which the video line would be cut.
When Damus started his journey to America, he imagined he would arrive at the US border, spend a few days in government custody, and then be released while his case made its way through the asylum process. That’s how the government had done it until recently. Instead, he was sent to a county jail in Ohio, a state to which he had zero connection.
In Haiti, Damus had taught ethics, math, and physics, but he said he fled in 2014 after a gang beat him for criticizing a corrupt politician. He traveled to Brazil and then made a perilous trek across the Americas before presenting himself at the official port of entry in Calexico, California.
At this point, he would normally have been released and allowed to live on his own until his asylum hearing. But Damus arrived at a time when “normal” was changing. President Donald Trump has overseen a radical transformation of the asylum process, causing people fleeing persecution to be punished at every turn—separated from their children, detained indefinitely, or forced to wait in dangerous conditions in Mexican border towns. The goal is to deter more refugees from making the journey north, to let them know they will be treated as criminals and kept in jail whenever possible.
What this means—profound suffering for thousands of migrants—can easily become an abstraction. Damus’ case provides an extreme example of what it looks like in practice.
His case for protection had obvious merit. A judge granted him asylum not once but twice. The government appealed both times and refused to release him while the case was pending. He remained in a windowless room in the Ohio jail for one year, then two. He was not able to call or write to his wife and two young children in Haiti. He was not permitted to receive books or visitors face to face. The jail had no outdoor space for recreation, and while some criminals in the facility were allowed to leave for work, Damus, as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee, could not.
As the timer on Benjamin’s phone approached zero, he and Hart told Damus that they would pray for him and said goodbye. Damus returned to his cell, where he faced weeks or months more of confinement—if he wasn’t deported first.
Damus arrived at the border two weeks before Trump was elected. It was the end of a two-year journey that took him to a Brazilian refugee camp and across the mountains of South and Central America. In Colombia, he was robbed; in Nicaragua, he was robbed again. In Guatemala, he had to bribe the police to continue north.
He finally reached the port of entry in Calexico, 100 miles east of San Diego. Officials took his name and information about his persecution at home and transferred him to the Geauga County jail to await his asylum hearing.
ICE denied Damus’ first request to be “paroled”—to live in the community while awaiting an asylum determination—on the grounds that he was a flight risk because he lacked sufficient ties in the United States. Then, in April 2017, a judge granted his asylum request, putting him on a path to receive a green card and bring his family to the United States. But by then, the Trump administration had set a harsh new tone across America’s immigration agencies, and ICE made the rare decision to appeal the judge’s ruling and keep him in jail. The judge again granted Damus asylum, and ICE again appealed.
He had now been in jail for 14 months. Convicted criminals had come and gone in the windowless room that held him and 19 other inmates. He was humiliated, ashamed, and cut off from his wife and children. He found hope in a passage from the Bible’s Epistle to the Hebrews assuring him that “discipline always seems painful…but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” He also turned to Job, who bore burdens even greater than his.
Damus compared his experience to showing up at someone’s home and asking for help. America let him in and then treated him like a robber, he said.
ICE has long detained more people than its facilities can hold, but under Trump it has released a far lower share of asylum-seekers from detention, and the number of detainees has shot up to record highs. So ICE has paid local jails to hold more immigrants, to the tune of about $70 per detainee per night. On any given day in 2018, ICE held roughly 14,500 migrants at more than 170 city and county jails—more than a third of its detainees. All across the country are people like Damus who followed the Trump administration’s exhortations to present themselves at ports of entry and get in line, only to end up in a cell.
It had been unusual for ICE to deny Damus parole, but now that he’d been granted asylum—twice—it would have been even rarer not to release him. So Elizabeth Ford, a local immigration attorney representing Damus pro bono, put together a second parole application. She tried to head off ICE’s claim that Damus lacked community ties by getting a local family to offer to house him.
Later that month, Damus heard an announcement over the jail’s intercom: “Damus visit.” He thought it was a mistake and didn’t respond. When he heard it again, he went over to the monitors and saw two white faces. It was Hart and Benjamin, who had agreed to sponsor him. “We are empty nesters and have a large home,” they wrote in a letter to ICE, in which they listed their professional qualifications: Benjamin is an attorney, and Hart is an accountant.
Damus barely spoke English, and Benjamin knew only rudimentary French, but they eventually found ways to communicate. Hart and Benjamin wrote Damus three letters a week in French, with the help of Google Translate, and prepared uplifting conversations in advance of their Sunday visits. Damus was often on the verge of allowing himself to be deported back to Haiti. Their goal was to keep him fighting.
ICE policy requires it to analyze each parole application “on its own merits,” but the agency denied Damus’ request in just one day. Government data showed that in the first months of the Trump administration, ICE’s Detroit field office, which covers Ohio, denied almost every asylum-seeker’s parole application. The rate of parole approvals across five field offices dropped from 92 percent between 2011 and 2013 to less than 4 percent between February and September 2017, even though the Department of Homeland Security, the agency that oversees ICE, claimed its parole policy had not changed. The trend had started before Trump, but his administration brought it to its extreme conclusion.
In early February 2018, Freda Levenson, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, showed up at the jail to discuss a potential lawsuit with Damus. “He did everything according to the law,” Levenson later said. “Every single thing right. The person that broke the law here was the government.” That March, the ACLU, Human Rights First, and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies filed a class-action lawsuit challenging ICE’s blanket parole denials, naming Damus as a plaintiff.
“I have not been outside for more than a year,” Damus said in a court declaration that month. “I have not even glimpsed natural light. I have not breathed fresh air or felt the sun on my face, and I never know if it is cold or hot outside, if the sun is out, and if the seasons are changing.” Since his detention, Damus said, he had been “unbearably sad, uncomfortable, and totally lacking in privacy.”
Kept on ICE
Damus’ case applies to asylum-seekers who enter the United States legally. Ironically, those who enter without authorization currently have an easier path out of confinement. They can be granted bond by immigration judges, who are generally more willing to approve their release than ICE. The Justice Department is expected to soon require all asylum-seekers to request parole from ICE—putting all of them in Damus’ impossible position.
As Damus’ cases inched forward, Hart and Benjamin contrived an improbable line of communication with his family in Haiti. The couple’s bishop got in touch with his church’s national headquarters and learned of an upcoming trip to the country. Damus wrote a letter to his wife, Adeline, and a church member hand-delivered it. From then on, Damus—who was unable to send international letters from jail—would mail his letters to Hart, who would scan and email them to Adeline. Hart would then print and mail the response to Damus. She saved Damus’ original letters in the hopes of returning them to him if he got out.
Hart and Benjamin tried to give Damus books in French, but the jail said donations to inmates were not allowed. So they photocopied books and mailed them 20 pages at a time, to ensure the letters would get past the jail’s vetting process. The first book Damus requested was a French translation of Karl Marx.
Damus’ best hope of release came over the summer, when the federal judge hearing the class-action case ruled that ICE had to follow its own parole guidelines and give due consideration to each case. His third parole application included letters from a dozen community members, including a local judge, a city councilwoman, and clergy. ICE sent an official to meet with Damus and then denied him parole a third time. “They’re not seriously considering this,” Ford told me. “That’s ridiculous.”
The ACLU focuses on forcing systemic changes and rarely takes individual cases. It made an exception for Damus because he’d been treated so egregiously. After ICE denied him parole again, the ACLU took the unusual step of filing a writ of habeas corpus, asking a federal judge to force ICE to release Damus.
Meanwhile, Hart, Benjamin, and dozens of Ohioans, who called themselves Ansly’s Army, held rallies and prayer vigils outside ICE’s Cleveland office on Thursdays. In October, I joined one member of the group, a retired Belgian doctor named Chantal Dothey, for her weekly video visit at the jail with Damus. We approached the two-way mirror in the fluorescent-lit lobby and slid our IDs under it to an invisible guard. The official buzzed open the heavy door to the visitation room that, like the rest of the building, seemed designed not to accommodate humans, but to withstand them. Damus soon appeared on the monitor, his features washed out but the stripes of his prison uniform clearly visible. He did most of the talking, in French, while Dothey and I listened.
By now Damus had spent two years in jail for making his legal case for asylum. His habeas hearing was still three months away. He said he felt bad all the time. When he addressed me, his limited English did not allow for euphemism. “I live in the jail,” he said repeatedly. After half an hour, the screen flashed off for a second to warn that the visit was almost over. Damus’ face was soon replaced on the screen by text: “No Signal.”
Ansly’s Army gathered that weekend at Hart and Benjamin’s Cleveland Heights home, a seven-bedroom 1915 Tudor. Hart and Benjamin had a bedroom made up for Damus. He could have been living with them for eight months. Instead, ICE was paying Geauga County $70 a day to keep him incarcerated. “No matter what we do,” Molly Brudnick, an 82-year-old retired social worker, told me, “no matter what the ACLU does, no matter what his attorney does, we still have Ansly in jail for no reason other than the absolute power of ICE.” Most of the half-dozen people there had not been involved in immigration activism before Trump took office and represented one of his unintentional legacies: an organized community deeply attuned to the injustices of modern immigration enforcement.
The next day, a federal judge moved up Damus’ January habeas hearing to November 28 and ordered him to appear in person. When the date arrived, some 30 supporters piled onto a chartered bus for the three-hour drive to the courthouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Damus was wearing civilian clothes for the first time since getting to the border, but he was in shackles, which the judge, Judith Levy, ordered removed. For Hart and Benjamin, it was their first glimpse of him in person, and they hugged him during a recess.
The following morning, the government told the ACLU it was willing to settle. It would release Damus if he agreed to wear an ankle monitor and live with his sponsors, the same conditions the ACLU and Damus had agreed to nearly three months earlier. On the last day of November, 768 days after he was first detained, Damus walked out of the Cleveland ICE office. He wore a dark suit and a white shirt, and he beamed. “I want go to church,” Damus told reporters in English. “Tell God, ‘Thank you.’ He give me my life.”
That night, Damus and Ansly’s Army celebrated at the Hart-Benjamin house with steak and champagne. On Saturday, Hart and Benjamin set him up with a phone, email address, and library card. Sunday was church—two masses and many more hugs—and a tour of downtown Cleveland. And throughout it all, many calls home. Damus had missed his son’s first, second, third, and fourth birthdays. Had ICE not appealed his asylum grant, he could have already applied for his family to join him in the United States.
His prospects are still daunting. Now that he is out of detention, his asylum case will likely be a lower priority. Hart and Benjamin have been told Damus might need to live with them for two years. If he is denied asylum, he will have to appeal to a federal court or accept deportation.
Four days after his release, Damus spoke to a local immigrant advocacy group about his time in jail. He had expected to talk to one person. He found a crowd of 40. As at every turn in his saga, he had more support than he could have foreseen.