A harsh reality for undocumented immigrants in Butler County
A walkthrough of the process from detainment to deportation
By Maia Anderson
Butler County Correctional Complex is one of only five places in Ohio where undocumented immigrants are detained, and any undocumented person who is arrested south of I-70 is sent there.
“We [the southern district court of Ohio] don’t have our own detention facility so we have a contract in Butler County and that’s why people who have been detained based on their lack of immigration status will be detained in Butler County,” said Magistrate Judge Karen L. Litkovitz.
There are 182 people being held for ICE in the Butler County Jail as of April 22. However, it is virtually impossible to keep track of how many people are in ICE custody in Butler County at any one time, as the county does not keep a list of ICE detainees separate from the publicly-accessible jail roster.
Typically, when a person is arrested for any criminal reason in the United States they see a judge within 72 hours. When it comes to undocumented people, that rule is often disregarded and people spend months, even years, in police custody waiting to see a judge.
“I have a client right now who entered Butler about a month ago and we received notice that his bond hearing, the first time he’s gonna face a judge, is going to be May 21,” said Jorge Martinez, an immigration attorney based in Blue Ash. “They ignore those constitutional rules in these cases because they have too many people detained and too few judges.”
After waiting to see a judge for the first time, people typically wait another two weeks for a bond hearing.
If the person being held by ICE has any prior federal, violent or drug-related offenses, they are not allowed to be released on bond and must stay in custody until a final decision is made on whether or not that person will be deported. If they want to apply for asylum or any kind of relief, they have to complete that process from jail.
If the undocumented person is able to pay bond, they are released from custody and have a court date set, usually for around three months after payment, in Cleveland. In 2012, Butler County Correctional Complex created a video court system to allow ICE detainees to attend legal proceedings at the immigration court in Cleveland without leaving the facility.
Currently, bond for undocumented immigrants is typically set at $10,000 or higher in Butler County. Martinez says he has seen bond set as high as $50,000 for some of his clients.
The amount someone has to pay for bond is determined on a case-by-case basis.
“The rule is that you have to convince the judge that you are not a danger to society and that you are not a flight risk,” Martinez said. “The amount is a consideration the judge makes thinking, ‘How much money will make this person come back to court every time we need the person?’”
Unlike other offenses where people in custody can be released after paying 10 percent of their bond, people detained for being undocumented must pay 100 percent of their bond before being released.
Considering a large majority of undocumented people work minimum wage jobs, having a $50,000 bond is roughly equivalent to three years of salary. Because many people aren’t able to pay their bond, they agree to be deported.
“Many take what is called a voluntary deportation,” Martinez said. “That’s asking the judge to, ‘Let me go by myself, I’ll buy my ticket.’
A voluntary deportation is not much different from being deported by the government, but it grants a person the authority to schedule their own flight to their home country. In such cases, the judge grants the person two weeks to provide ICE a passport and a plane ticket. To be qualified for a voluntary deportation, a person must be able to have enough documentation to board a commercial plane. If they cannot provide that, they are deported, meaning their plane ticket home is paid for by the government.
If they are not released on bond and don’t agree to a voluntary deportation, they are given another court date a few weeks into the future to make their case to be released. That day, a judge will hear their argument then give them a final hearing date, typically a month after, where they will announce their final decision regarding the undocumented person.
“Many times they don’t have enough time so they have to reschedule again and reschedule again and people can be in jail for six months and more,” Martinez said. “I have seen people spend a year in jail until they get a final decision.”
How are undocumented people discovered by ICE?
According to Martinez, ICE finds the majority of undocumented people by detaining them for reasons other than their immigration status.
When any person who is arrested is being booked, they are asked for their Social Security number. If someone fails to provide a Social Security number, it is often assumed they are undocumented and the police officer calls ICE. ICE then processes that person to determine if they’ve been arrested before and have any prior offenses.
The majority of those detained in Butler County had no prior offenses listed before being detained by ICE.
If an undocumented person was deported once before, they are charged with illegal re-entry, which is a federal crime. Before the Bush administration, people were not typically charged for illegal re-entry, though it has become standard practice today.
ICE occasionally does “special operations” in order to find undocumented people. According to Martinez, ICE agents park their cars near places they assume an undocumented person may work, like construction sites, and stop the cars of the workers. If they find that someone does not have a license, or has an improper license, they take them into custody.
Police also discover undocumented people at DUI checkpoints. When people are pulled over at such a stop, they are asked to provide their license. If they are unable to, they can be taken into custody.
Butler County a flashpoint in the immigration debate
Since Sheriff Richard K. Jones was elected in 2004, he has developed a reputation for having harsh views on immigration. In 2006, Jones put a large, yellow sign outside the county jail that read “Illegal Aliens Here” in order to frighten residents who may not have documentation.
He also put six billboards up around the county showing himself crossing his arms and reminding employers that hiring undocumented immigrants knowingly is illegal.
“He had to take [the sign] down in order to please ICE to get this agreement signed,” Martinez said, referring to the 287g agreement made between Butler County and ICE to allow the Sheriff’s Office to perform immigration law enforcement. Such agreements exist in 21 states with 80 different local law enforcement agencies.
“He was reckless trying to stop immigrants before that,” Martinez said. “He had to get a supervisor from ICE to supervise his activities related with immigrants.”
In 2007, hundreds of ICE agents raided Koch Foods in Fairfield, arresting more than 160 people for immigration violations.
In 2010, Butler County paid $100,000 in a settlement with Luis Rodriguez, a construction worker in Butler County who was illegally deported to Mexico with his wife and two children after Jones’s staff raided the construction site where he was working.
According to Martinez, that case was the reason the Sheriff’s Office stopped conducting their special operations seeking illegal immigrants.
In March 2017, Jones wrote a letter to President Trump encouraging him to send ICE agents to Butler County to raid businesses he suspected were hiring undocumented workers. Last summer, Jones again said he wanted to see the federal government raid businesses in Butler County after ICE agents arrested over 100 people in a raid at a gardening store in northern Ohio.
Jones has tried to bill the Department of Homeland Security for $125,000 for expenses his department paid for their enforcement practices. He also called on Mexico to pay $61,141 as compensation for arrests made in Butler County. He received money from neither.
Sheriff Jones was unable to be reached for comment for this story. However, in a 2015 interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, the Sheriff expressed his attitude towards deportation.
“If I have one person that’s raped, killed, car crashes where they leave the scene, that’s too much,” Sheriff Jones said. “It’s not about brown, it’s not about white, it’s not racist. If I could deport Americans I would.”
The business of detainees
The act of coming into the United States without documentation is not a crime in itself. If it were a crime, the government would be required by the Constitution to provide a lawyer to each undocumented person brought into custody, which would be very costly.
“Immigration has the authority to detain undocumented immigrants regardless of the fact that it’s not a crime,” Martinez said. “They are allowed to detain them to decide what to do with them. What I have to explain to my clients is, ‘You’re here, but you’re not being punished. It is an administrative measure they take so you don’t escape while they decide what to do with you.’”
The Butler County Correctional Complex is given $75 per day per ICE detainee by the federal government to pay for their housing. The longer an ICE inmate stays in custody, the more money the correctional complex makes.
Butler County has a long length of stay for ICE detainees compared to the national average.
In 2015, the last year for which data is available, the average stay at the Butler County Correctional Complex was 33 days, according to data from a TRAC Immigration study. Comparatively, the national average stay was 12 days, placing BCCC in the top 28 percent of facilities nationwide for their length of stay. However, this is only the average stay before being transferred to another holding facility, so detainees often spend longer than 33 days in custody.
Life inside the correctional complex
Once an undocumented person arrives to the Butler County Correctional Complex, they are given a different uniform and a different space in the jail than the other inmates.
According to Martinez, ICE detainees get slightly different treatment. For instance, they are not sent out on work detail to clean the side of roads as general population inmates are. In other ways, they are treated the same, such as being fed the same meals as the general population.
The majority of people detained by ICE in Butler County are men. Of the 182 people detained in the Butler County Correctional Complex as of April 22, 2019, only 10 of them are women. The majority of current detainees are men with an average age of 36.
Martinez thinks this is because men are more likely to put themselves in a position to be caught by enforcement officials.
“If we talk about among the immigrant community, I would say the males are the ones who go out to work, who go out and expose themselves to being stopped by police or by ICE while their wives or the children are at home and there’s less risk for them to be detained,” Martinez said.
Immigrants from Mexico made up the majority of persons detained by ICE in Butler County in 2015 at 53 percent. Only one percent of detainees were from a country outside Latin America.
A long path to citizenship
According to Gabriela Mendoza Thibeau, an immigration attorney based in West Chester, the way an undocumented person entered the United States plays a large factor in determining whether or not that person will be allowed to stay and apply for permanent residency or citizenship.
“If somebody crossed the border and came in illegally… they will not qualify to adjust status from within the United States, so they’ll have to process outside the United States through an embassy or consulate,” Thibeau said.
According to Thibeau, illegally entering the United States and staying for an extended period of time without making an effort to claim asylum or gain legal status makes a person subject to inadmissibility bars, which ban them from reentering the United States for either three or 10 years. It is possible to apply for a waiver for inadmissibility bars, but that requires extra documentation and is not always granted. Therefore, coming to the United States and staying undocumented for a long period of time makes it less likely a person will be allowed to become a permanent resident or citizen.
“The other thing is they have to show that they’re not going to become a public charge to the United States,” Thibeau said. “So, they don’t want individuals to become permanent residents, then the minute they get their green card going on welfare.”
Immigrants must also pass a medical exam and are checked for tattoos that may indicate a relation to gang violence.
Judge Litkovitz, who oversees naturalization ceremonies for immigrants who wish to become United States citizens, said she believes the number of people applying to become citizens has increased since Donald Trump took office.
“Since the new administration was elected in 2016, I personally have seen the number of naturalization ceremonies go way up,” Litkovitz said. “I think part of it is, frankly, fear on the part of people who are in the country who don’t know whether there will be new rules that are made by the administration as to when people can stay, here how long people can stay here, whether they can come from other countries into this country.”
While undocumented individuals in Butler County might fear for their future, and possible deportation, in neighboring Hamilton County city council declared Cincinnati a sanctuary city in 2017. By doing so officials declared their refusal to cooperate with ICE agents in the city.