BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — Time ticked slower in Calhoun County jail’s Unit L as the last of the women detained in recent Ohio immigration raids wondered why they hadn’t left yet.
Cristina Hernandez-Mendez, 21, was scanning in plants at Corso’s Flower and Garden Center in Castalia, Ohio, in early June when federal agents raided the nursery and its sister store in Sandusky, detaining more than 100 workers suspected of being illegal immigrants.
Seven weeks later, Ms. Hernandez-Mendez was still waiting in civil detention for her first court hearing, 200 miles from her children, ages 3, 5, and 6.
“I know this is Immigration’s job,” Ms. Hernandez-Mendez told The Blade in a jailhouse interview, “but it breaks my heart.”
In the past two months, as the Trump Administration separated migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, it also launched two of the largest workplace immigration raids in a decade at two Corso’s locations in northern Ohio and at a meatpacking plant in Salem, a small city about 25 miles south of Youngstown.
And while the government scrambled to reunify families separated in the southwest, mothers detained in the heartland waited in county jails for hearings — a story growing more and more familiar in the Midwest, where ICE arrests are on the rise and where counties stand to gain financially.
In mid-July, The Blade met with four of Corso’s former female employees at Calhoun County jail, a low, brick building tucked beside the jet-black Justice Center in downtown Battle Creek, Mich. The women had been held there since the June 5 raid, when federal agents bearing donuts as bait interrupted early morning inventory to arrest those suspected of working in the country illegally.
Calhoun County jail enjoys a decades-long relationship with U.S. immigration agencies. Originally built to hold more inmates than local courts could supply, in 1999 Calhoun County jail started housing detainees for the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Services to offset operating costs, Sheriff Matthew Saxton told The Blade.
“We are a housing service,” he said. “We house to the standards Homeland Security sets.” Today, INS’s successor, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, pays the county about $64 per detainee per day, the sheriff said, renting more than 200 beds at a time.
In a small jail meeting room, the four women The Blade visited wore orange jumpsuits and sat in plastic chairs, elbow to elbow around a table.
“I can’t sleep because I think a lot about my kids,” said Ms. Hernandez-Mendez, a single mother since her partner’s recent deportation. “Because they only have me, and I only have them.”
“They tell me they wait for me, that they miss me,” a Salvadoran grandmother named Consuelo Lazo-Castillo, who is accused of impersonating a U.S. citizen and lying about her citizenship status, said of her family. “They are used to being close to me.”
A longtime resident of Willard, Ohio, Ms. Lazo-Castillo said she fled El Salvador in 1996, after her husband and her later partner — the fathers of her four children — were each murdered at work. But her fear of family separation took hold later, in 2005, when she said her eldest son disappeared after being deported back to El Salvador.
“My daughters are desperate because they don’t know anything,” she said, wiping her eyes with toilet paper from the jail’s bathroom. “They don’t know what’s going to happen.”
It’s a particular kind of limbo that can develop during civil detention, and in the hundreds of county jails across the country under contract with ICE. This summer, such arrangements attracted attention as counties in Texas, Oregon, and California moved to terminate lucrative agreements with ICE in protest of the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policies, the Associated Press reported.
But in the Midwest, where some county jails depend on ICE revenues to operate, interest in contracting with ICE shows little sign of flagging. Counties in Minnesota and Illinois, as well as private companies in Indiana, Nevada, and Wyoming, proposed to build or expand detention centers following a request put out by ICE in October, it was reported.
In Michigan, Calhoun County joined in, submitting a proposal to build a dedicated ICE detention facility that would add 300 beds to the existing 250 under contract, according to records obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center through a public records request.
As demand for ICE housing has grown, so have profits. In at least three of the four Ohio county jails under contract with ICE, payments from the agency have risen significantly since 2016, invoices obtained by The Blade show. At the Seneca County jail in Tiffin, payments made for housing services increased by about 57 percent from 2016, rising to just over $1.7 million in 2017 — the highest percentage increase at the jail since at least 2012.
Similarly, invoices from Geauga County Safety Center and Butler County Correctional Complex showed 58 percent and 30 percent growth, respectively, from 2016 to 2017. And so far, at all three jails, 2018 is outpacing 2017 in payments due.
One jail in particular has a history of leaning heavily on ICE for financial support. Morrow County Correctional Facility — where ICE revenues made up 44.81 percent of the annual budget in 2017 — dug itself out of debt by contracting with the agency in 2009.
The county opened a new jail in 1994, County Prosecutor Charles Howland said, only to find that other counties were expanding, too — cutting the supply of overflow inmates from other jails. “Our population went down,” Mr. Howland said, “but we still owed a heck of a lot of money. We no longer were able to rent out our space, and we were dependent on that for paying for our jail.”
Morrow County Sheriff John Hinton said ICE instructed him not to provide invoices but to refer The Blade to ICE. A records request filed with the agency on July 17 was acknowledged but not answered.
Midwest arrests spike
Hena Mansori, a Chicago-based attorney who supervises the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Detention Project, said she has observed a notable increase in the number of ICE arrests in the Midwest targeting longtime U.S. residents who are undocumented — not individuals in the court system or who had recently crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.
The observation is supported by federal data, which shows that “at-large arrests” by ICE — as opposed to ICE arrests of convicted criminals — rose by 52.3 percent nationwide, including at the border, following President Trump’s immigration-related executive orders in January, 2017. In early 2017, the Associated Press reported that ICE arrests climbed by 40 percent in the country’s interior.
In a 2017 news release, Thomas Homan, then the acting director of ICE, stated that the statistics “reflect President Trump’s commitment to enforce our immigration laws fairly and across the board.” He added, “ICE agents and officers have been given clear direction to focus on threats to public safety and national security, which has resulted in a substantial increase in the arrest of convicted criminal aliens. However, when we encounter others who are in the country unlawfully, we will execute our sworn duty and enforce the law.”
ICE regional spokesman Khaalid Walls echoed the sentiment in a recent email to The Blade. While the agency continues to focus its efforts on threats to security and public safety, he said, “ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” and added that anyone in violation of immigration law may be subject to arrest, detention, and possible deportation.
“It’s all just so random,” Ms. Mansori contended. “We’re not really seeing any rhyme or reason as to why certain people are picked up. They’re simply being targeted because they’re undocumented, or because they’re brown.”
Came as a teenager
When she was 13, Ms. Hernandez-Mendez journeyed from Chiapas, Mexico, to Norwalk, Ohio, where her older brother had settled after making the same trek as a teenager. She babysat children of Corso’s workers until she took a job at the nursery herself.
This summer, as her jail time stretched beyond expectation, she sought information from her siblings with mounting desperation while sugarcoating her situation on the phone with her three children — all U.S. citizens because they were born here. With them, she played pretend: “I tell them I’m working a lot,” Ms. Hernandez-Mendez said, her eyes pink from crying, “that soon, I will be with them.”
Still, her absence registered with her children the first night she didn’t come home, her sister, Maritza Hernandez, 14, said over the phone. She and her brother, Carlos, 33, stayed with the children after the raid. For days, they said, the 3-year-old was inconsolable. “He would cry every single night,” Maritza said. “The oldest one asks where she’s at, but the youngest one, he doesn’t really know.”
And for weeks, older family members knew little more. “We don’t know why she’s one of the last ones [left in jail],” Maritza said, her older brother repeating: “I don’t know, I don’t even know.”
Inside the jail, too, incomplete information was the norm — a reality caught in poignant miniature when a guard poked his head in to tell a quiet woman named Fabiola Escobar-Velasquez, 20, that she had a visitor.
“Your lawyer is here to see you,” he said. “Your abogado.”
But when Ms. Escobar-Velasquez went to look for him, she couldn’t find him. “Nobody was there to see her,” a different guard announced. It took 10 minutes for attorney and client to find each other; when they did, Ms. Escobar-Velasquez’s excitement turned quickly to dread upon learning that her bond had been set not at $5,000 — the amount set for the woman sitting beside her, a Mexican woman named Elsa Gutierrez-Guzman — but at $15,000.
“Quince mil,” whispered Ms. Gutierrez-Guzman, 55, who has since been released on bond. She shook her head. “Fifteen thousand.”
“I can’t pay that,” Ms. Escobar-Velasquez said, and went quiet.
Though she would have to remain in jail until her next hearing, the bond put her ahead of two of her companions — Ms. Hernandez-Mendez and Ms. Lazo-Castillo — who that day were still praying for the opportunity to appear before a judge and be considered for bond in the first place.
By late July, their statuses had changed — promising indefinite jail time for one and imminent release for another. Before dawn on July 25, Ms. Lazo-Castillo was transferred to U.S. Border Patrol custody at Lucas County jail after criminal charges of impersonation and lying under oath were filed in federal court. And on July 27, Ms. Hernandez-Mendez appeared by video conference in Detroit Immigration Court, where her bond was set at $3,000; on Monday, her family posted bond and brought her home.
Back in Calhoun County jail, when the interview was done, the four women filed out of the meeting room and stood uncertainly in the open area just inside the jail’s entrance. It was nearly dinnertime; they expected another meal of hard beans that night, followed by their usual early bed time, around 7 p.m.
Speaking to one another in low voices, they waited there for a guard to lead them back into Unit L, where they would read the Bible, call home, try to fall asleep — and continue to wait.
Contact Lily Moore-Eissenberg at email@example.com, 419-724-6368, or on Twitter @LilyM_E.
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