ICE agrees to release Haitian detainee after 2 years

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Ansly Damus

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Detroit has agreed to release a 42-year-old Haitian refugee Thursday who has been detained and went more than two years without sunlight.

Ansly Damus, an ethics teacher and father of two, will be released from his maximum confinement windowless-cell in Geauga County jail in Ohio Friday to his sponsors in Cleveland, according to a federal judge in Ann Arbor.

Damus sought asylum in the U.S. after being beaten for criticizing a politician in his homeland. He fled in September 2014 after he was attacked by a well-armed gang affiliated with the politician. Damus and his family were threatened to be killed if he ever returned to his hometown of Grand-Riviere-du-Nord.

He spent 18 months in Brazil, where he faced racial discrimination before he arrived at the California border seeking asylum in October 2016. 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.

Ata hearing in January, the judge granted his asylum, only to have the government appeal again. On Wednesday, ICE could not provide a reason for Damus' further detention or why he was denied parole. 

U.S. District Judge Judith E. Levy entered the order for his release Thursday while his asylum case is pending with the Board of Immigration Appeals. ICE complied and agreed to release him without further continuing the hearing. 

"How can the conditions of his confinement be more restrictive rather than someone who has committed a heinous crime?" Levy said Wednesday. "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."

ICE previously denied Damus' petition for parole, saying he was a flight risk without reason or proof of criminal history, said David Hausman, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project. 

"This is just a really emotional moment for us that Mr. Damus will be released to his sponsors, and we're just happy that he's no longer going to be behind bars," Hausman said Thursday. "It was clear yesterday that the government couldn't hold him. They didn't have any reason, and it would be unconstitutional. He's continuing to seek asylum, and that will occur over the coming months or years."

Gary Benjamin and Melody Hart wait for ACLU attorneys outside federal court in Ann Arbor on Wednesday.

Damus wrote in a March blog post published by the ACLU of Michigan that he got through most of his days with his Bible.

"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," Damus wrote. "... At Geauga, I have seen other asylum-seekers give up and return to countries where they fled danger because the price of seeking safety — imprisonment for months or years on end — was just too high. I am still fighting."

Melody Hart and her husband, Gary Benjamin, have been awaiting Damus' release since January and visited him three times a week at the jail, keeping his spirits up. On Wednesday, the couple showed up with a bus of supporters from Cleveland for his hearing.

"It's interesting that he was released by the government that (was) fighting to keep him," Hart said Thursday. "We're very excited. We've got a room set up for him, and we're going to pick him up tomorrow. We're getting him right into ELS classes, get him speaking English better and then a work permit.

"Hopefully it'll help him resettle and I'm sure he'll be so excited. Not about the cold, but he'll be happy to be outside."
Twitter: @SarahRahal_