Haitian refugee held while Ann Arbor judge decides fate

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Supporters and attorneys including Michael Steinberg from the ACLU (left) gather outside federal court in Ann Arbor after a judge decided to announce her decision later, in the case of a Haitian man, Ansly Damus, detained and scheduled for deportation.

Ann Arbor — Melody Hart and her husband Gary Benjamin brought a busload of supporters from Cleveland to the Ann Arbor federal courthouse Wednesday, but unexpectedly left without the person they planned to retrieve.

In January, Hart agreed to sponsor Ansly Damus, a Haitian man who sought asylum after being beaten for criticizing a politician in his homeland. 

Damus has been held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for more than two years and had hoped to be released to the Cleveland couple while his asylum case was pending. However, the federal judge delayed the motion hearing to await more information. 

Damus, an ethics teacher and father of two, felt defeated, his translator said. He was previously granted asylum twice by immigration judges, and the government has appealed both times. 

Ansly Damus' support group outside the Ann Arbor federal building Wednesday.

ICE denied Damus' petition for parole saying he was a flight risk without reason and imprisoned him at a jail in Geauga County, Ohio in a windowless cell without exercise, said David Hausman, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project. 

"He's likely to be detained for multiple years while his case is pending, and it's so clear he doesn't pose a flight risk and has supporters in Cleveland," Hausman said. "ICE has never offered any factual basis on why he should be detained and that alone should grant his release. He has no past criminal record. Further detention is unconstitutional."

U.S District Judge Judith E. Levy was moments away from deciding to release Damus until a government representative said it could provide a witness who determined Damus would be a flight risk. Levy is going to determine if there should be another hearing or is she will release Damus. 

"How can the conditions of his confinement be more restrictive rather than someone who has committed a heinous crime?" Levy asked the government. "He could end this detention at any time if he agreed to return home and he hasn't, possibly because he has a legitimate reason not to return.

Gary Benjamin and Melody Hart wait for ACLU attorneys outside federal court in Ann Arbor after a judge decided to announce her decision later.

"I need to know why ICE is not satisfied, despite ICE saying they don't have to provide a reason," she continued. "If his due process rights have been taken for granted, it needs to end and I will issue some kind of directive tomorrow."

Should Damus be released, he'd stay with Hart and Benjamin, who is a magistrate judge for Cleveland Heights Municipal Court. The couple visits Damus weekly, brought him clothes to wear for court Wednesday with his support group holding "#FreeAnsly signs outside the court.

"He's a hard worker, we just want to keep up his courage," Hart said. "We were hoping to take him home and there was a fear this would happen. The judge has not said we wouldn't be able to take him. She just needs to think if she should listen to ICE."

Damus' departure

Ansly Damus

In September 2014, Damus, an ethics teacher, was leading a youth seminar in his hometown of Grand-Riviere-du-Nord discussing corruption in Haitian politics. Damus named a local government official, Benjamin Ocenjac, as an example of someone who works with gangs to terrorize the population.

Later on that day, Damus was attacked by “La Meezorequin,” the Shark Bones Army, a well-armed gang that supports Ocenjac, he said. 

"Men dragged me off my motorcycle and savagely beat me — leaving me with scars which I bear to this day," Damus wrote in a March 2018 blog post published by the ACLU. "They set my motorcycle on fire and threatened to kill me."

Damus fled Haiti 10 days later, leaving behind his wife, two children, parents and siblings. He first headed to Brazil, where he spent 18 months living in a refugee camp and then on his own. He found work in construction, but faced racial discrimination and was told he "was an animal, that people like me were flooding the country to steal jobs," he wrote.

In October 2016, he arrived at the California border seeking asylum in fear he and his wife would be killed if he returned to Haiti. An immigration judge granted his asylum application in April 2017, but ICE called for more proceedings to determine if his time in Brazil had rendered him ineligible for asylum. 

At his second hearing in January, the judge granted his asylum, only to have the government appeal, again. 

All the while, Damus was imprisoned at a jail in Geauga County, Ohio under the supervision of the Detroit ICE Offices.

"For the past 11 months, there have been no other French speakers at Geauga whom I can talk to. I spend my days in near total isolation, finding comfort only when I’m reading my Bible," he writes. "My teacher’s mind struggles to find a lesson in my experience, but I can’t make sense of this. The United States has allowed people fleeing persecution to apply for asylum for decades, both as part of its laws and culture. When I feared for my life and arrived at the border, it felt like the U.S. had extended an open hand to me. Yet in accepting it, I have been condemned to indefinite imprisonment, even though I have committed no crime."

ICE is seeking to dismiss the petition arguing that Damus’ "detention and parole denials are constitutional while his asylum request is being processed in a reasonable amount of time."

Levy requested Damus be detained somewhere close to his Cleveland supporters and kept in the area should there be a bond hearing. 

"I’m hoping that America will prove to be better than this," Damus wrote in his closing.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_