ICE Jailed An Asylum Seeker For Two Years For No Reason, But His Community Fought Back

“We Call Ourselves Ansly’s Army”

By Amrit Cheng
December 6, 2018blue line as section break

It was 1:48pm on Nov. 29 when Gary Benjamin sent the one-line email on his iPhone: “ICE agreed to release Ansly here in Cleveland tomorrow!!”

Responses started flying in immediately:

“So awesome. I feel like crying.”
“What do we need to do next? How can we help from here on?”

That was a fitting question from a community that had spent the last year fighting for the release of Ansly Damus, an asylum seeker from Haiti, who had spent more than two years incarcerated at a jail in Chardon, Ohio, despite having never committed a crime.

Until last week, Ansly had not stepped outside the Geauga County Safety Center since arriving there in October 2016. The jail has no outdoor space, so he spent all of his time in a windowless dormitory. His long imprisonment is unusual; jails typically hold people awaiting trial or are serving short sentences under a year.

Again, Ansly has not committed a single crime. Yet for inexplicable reasons, he was held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for more than two years, despite having been granted asylum twice by an immigration court, first in April 2017 and then again in January 2018. Each time, the government appealed the ruling, and denied his request for parole even though he poses no threat to public safety and has a loving community rooting for him. 

Ansly’s long journey took a positive turn last week, when ICE finally decided to release him on Friday, after a hearing in federal court on Nov. 28 in which District Judge Judith E. Levy questioned the basis of his continued detention.

Ansly leaves ICE in Cleveland

He will now be able to go through the asylum process while living with his sponsors and with support from a local community that has come to his defense.

light green lineImprisoned for Seeking Safety

Ansly had been an ethics and math teacher in Haiti. His troubles began when he spoke out against corruption in Haitian politics. While he was leading a youth seminar, he referred to a local government official as someone who works with gangs to terrorize the people. Later that day, he was attacked by members of “La Meezorequin,” a well-armed gang that supported the official. Threatened with death, he fled Haiti and sought asylum at the U.S. border in California in October 2016.

During his imprisonment, Ansly became a plaintiff in two lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The first was a class-action lawsuit filed in March 2018 challenging the Trump administration’s arbitrary detention of asylum seekers fleeing persecution, torture, or death in their countries of origin. The Department of Homeland Security’s policy states that asylum seekers should be released from detention while their cases are processed, provided they do not pose a flight risk or danger. The lawsuit identified five ICE field offices that have almost entirely stopped granting parole to asylum seekers since Donald Trump took office. On July 2, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. ordered ICE to re-review each denial and provide individualized parole reviews going forward. Since then, 460 asylum seekers have been released on parole as a result. 

Ansly, however, remained behind bars. When ICE denied Ansly’s application for parole on Aug. 8, the only explanation given was three checked boxes on a form letter, saying “You have not established to ICE’s satisfaction that you are not a flight risk”; “You did not establish, to ICE’s satisfaction, substantial ties to the community”; and “Imposition of bond or other conditions of parole would not ensure, to ICE’s satisfaction, your appearance at required immigration hearings pending the outcome of your case.”

light green line“A Radical Welcome”

The box about lack of community ties struck Melody Hart and Gary Benjamin, a married couple from Cleveland Heights, as completely wrong. They met Ansly in January 2018, when they agreed to sponsor him during his asylum process. As part of Ansly’s parole application, they had written a letter explaining how they had come to know Ansly through weekly visits at the Geauga County jail where they talked to him on closed circuit TV and the letters they exchanged up to three times a week. They described him as “a kind and gentle man who has done no wrong” and assured ICE that they have “sufficient resources and income to provide for his housing, food, utilities, clothing, and care while he awaits being granted asylum.”

They also explained that they were not alone. In fact, they had formed a support group of about “a dozen people who have been working diligently on providing support to Ansly, funding his jail account, donating books to the jail library, etc.” They called themselves “Ansly’s Army.”

Melody and Gary, Ansly’s sponsors

The application also included letters of support from a municipal judge, a city councilwoman, ministers from three congregations, and a petition signed by more than 500 local residents, all urging that Ansly be allowed to join their community in Cleveland Heights. 

And yet, the ties were not to ICE’s satisfaction.

For Gary and Melody, the sign they made for one of the first prayer vigils they organized outside of ICE sums it up: “Ansly has more friends than ICE.”

light green lineAnsly’s Day in Court

In September, the ACLU, the ACLU of Michigan, and the ACLU of Ohio filed a second suit on Ansly’s behalf, a habeas petition arguing that his prolonged detention violates his due process rights under the Fifth Amendment and serves no legitimate government interest. The ACLU asked the court to order Ansly’s immediate release, and the government asked that the case be dismissed. A hearing was set for Nov. 28 in the Eastern District Court of Michigan, and the judge ordered that Ansly be present — allowing him to step outside the jail’s walls.

Melody and Gary were in the courtroom last Wednesday. They had organized a bus trip for around 30 supporters, mostly retired seniors, to drive from Cleveland to Ann Arbor, Michigan to show support.

Melody and Gary making Ansly's bed

As the trip began, Melody stood up to brief the group and passed out a poem that Ansly had written for his daughter, who remained in Haiti with his wife and young son. At Geauga, Ansly was not allowed to make international calls or send overseas mail. Dr. Chantal Dothey, a member of Ansly’s Army who made weekly visits to him, first looked for Ansly’s wife on Facebook. Thanks to a combination of the internet and church connections, Melody and Gary had been able to put Ansly back in touch with his family, whom he had not been able to communicate with for at least 14 months. Now, he writes letters to Melody who scans them on her computer and emails them to his family in Haiti.

“I think this will show you the type of man he is,” she said over the driver’s mic as the people passed papers back.

The first stanza reads:

If you believe in the power of a hand offered
If you think what brings men together is more important than what divides them 
If you think that being different is a value and not a danger
If you know how to look at each other with a bit of love
if you know how to prefer hope to suspicion
then, peace will come.

As the group filed into the courtroom, the benches quickly filled. The guards brought in folding chairs for people to sit in the back. Melody had asked Ansly’s lawyers to ask the judge to allow him to wear a suit to the hearing and that he would not be forced to wear shackles. She knew that Ansly was humiliated to be in jail.

The request was approved and Gary and Melody picked out a few options at the Salvation Army. It was a group effort to guess his sizes, and the general wisdom was that it would be better to go bigger than smaller. When Ansly entered the court, the suit appeared to fit. He was escorted in by three ICE guards who were armed but not in uniform. Ansly had leg shackles on, but the judge asked that they be removed before the hearing began.

During the hearing, the ACLU pressed the judge to release Ansly immediately. If she decided in his favor, he would be able to ride the bus back to Cleveland with all his supporters. Melody and Gary had steaks marinating at home and a bedroom prepared for him.

The hearing lasted close to two hours with both sides presenting arguments. During a five-minute recess, Gary and Melody gave Ansly a hug — their first physical contact.

Attorneys talk to Ansly’s Army after the hearing

Judge Levy sharply questioned the government’s lawyer, asking how it was that "someone in civil detention could be held in conditions that are more restrictive than someone who committed a heinous crime?” When the government said that ICE could produce a witness to explain the reason for denial of Ansly’s parole, the judge agreed to extend the hearing. In the meantime, she said, Ansly would be detained in a Detroit facility, rather than returning to Ohio.

light green line“Today I breathe fresh air”

He was whisked away quickly, before Melody, Gary, and the others had a chance to speak with him. The mood among his supporters was somber. On the bus trip back to Cleveland, Gary acknowledged that it had been a long, trying day.  “And then I remembered, Ansly’s been in jail waiting for more than two years,” he said.  “I don’t think I could have lasted more than an hour and a half.”

Gary on bus coming home

While Melody and Gary were disappointed, they wanted Ansly to know this wasn’t the end of the fight. And they were heartened by how the judge spoke about Ansly and her recognition that so many supporters had made the trip.

“ICE says Ansly doesn’t have a community but there weren’t even enough seats for all of us in the courtroom,” Gary said.   

On Friday, when ICE decided to release Ansly – without offering any explanation for his two-year imprisonment and on the condition that he wears an ankle monitor – Melody and Gary and his ACLU lawyers were there to greet him.

Gary, Melody and Ansly

There is still a long road ahead. Ansly’s asylum application is currently before the Board of Immigration Appeals. But he’ll be able to wait for that decision among friends.

When asked what he wanted to do first, he said, “Go to church to thank God.”

Stay Informed