Cincinnati's Complicated Sanctuary City Status

An incident involving an undocumented asylum-seeker currently in the Hamilton County Justice Center on a federal ICE detainer illustrates ambiguities in Cincinnati's "sanctuary city" status

click to enlarge Hamilton County Justice Center - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Hamilton County Justice Center

Back in July, Manuel Ventura-Pineda, an immigrant from El Salvador currently seeking asylum in the United States, found himself in a tussle with a man named Charles Brewster, Jr. at a Kennedy Heights apartment complex where Ventura and his family had once lived.

Cincinnati Police ended up arresting Ventura on misdemeanor assault charges for biting Brewster in his torso, and, hours after his arrest, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials placed a federal hold on him as well. His ongoing detention in county jail under that hold has big personal stakes — and could have bigger political implications as his attorneys challenge the county and the federal government.

Ventura pleaded not guilty last month, and witnesses to the altercation say the undocumented immigrant was defending himself from an attack. There’s a twist: last year, Brewster pleaded guilty to threatening Ventura’s family with a gun at the same apartment complex.

Even if Ventura pays the $1,500 bond levied by the court, he faces detention by ICE due to the hold. That has triggered a federal lawsuit in the U.S. Southern Ohio District Court, filed by attorney Charleston Wang, alleging ICE and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office are violating Ventura-Pineda’s constitutional rights.

Beyond the individual details, the case is significant as a hazy window into the relationship between the county, home to self-proclaimed immigrant-friendly sanctuary city Cincinnati, and ICE, which has ramped up enforcement efforts around the “zero tolerance” immigration policies of President Trump’s administration.

The sheriff’s office declined to comment on emailed questions about the case and the means by which ICE learns about county jail detainees in order to place holds on them. Immigration attorneys, however, believe the sheriff’s office is actively working with ICE in contradiction to an agreement between immigrant advocates and Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil.

Those attorneys also have questions about Cincinnati Police actions around Ventura’s arrest, including why Brewster, the other man in the tussle, was not also arrested, despite a history of menacing the family. CPD declined to comment on the case.

Wang has also filed a motion in Hamilton County Courts asking the city and county to drop the assault charge against Ventura.

Local activists with the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center and other groups have drafted a letter asking Sheriff Neil not to recognize the ICE hold on Ventura and another man held on an ICE detainer named Victor Camacho-Sanchez  — something they say is within his discretion. A number of local labor unions have signed on to that request.

Both Camacho and Ventura are involved in a wage theft case in which an out of town developer who received subsidies from the city is accused of stealing their wages and the wages of more than two dozen other workers.

"Ventura and Camacho are whistleblowers and witnesses in active labor cases and members of the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center," CIWC's letter to the sheriff says. "The immigration holds for Ventura and Camacho are voluntary inter-governmental requests. There is no legal requirement in Hamilton County to hold these men under an ICE request."

CIWC and other activists also recently sent a similar letter to Mayor John Cranley asking that he intervene to win Camacho and Ventura's release.

"Ventura and Camacho are accused of only misdemeanors and were given low bonds," that letter reads. "They are innocent and want to be vindicated. Rather than preparing their defense or assisting with their wage theft cases, they face deportation and family separation if their low bonds are posted."

Ventura's wife, Kristen Clark, witnessed the July incident. She says that she, her husband and others were at an apartment complex in Pleasant Ridge, where they used to live, to discuss a wage theft complaint brought by the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center that involved some of their former neighbors.

Clark says Brewster harassed Ventura and others, eventually taking off his shirt and challenging Ventura to a fight. When Ventura walked away, Clark says, Brewster punched him in the back of the head and took him to the ground.

“He was beating my husband, choking him,” she says. “I guess my husband bit him, trying to get up.”

Clark says Brewster had to be separated from Ventura by two bystanders. Police arrived later in the evening to respond to a call from Brewster, who had gone to wait nearby in  his car. After seeing the bite marks on his torso, officers arrested Ventura, who by this point had returned to the parking lot of the complex and was waiting in a car with others.

A police report of the incident doesn’t yield much detail, but does show that both Ventura and Brewster had evident, but mild, injuries. The report doesn’t include any statements from witnesses to the events but does say Brewster also accused Ventura of hitting him with a bottle.

The phone number listed on the police report as Brewster’s was inactive. A voicemail left with another cell phone number associated with a man named Charles Brewster, Jr. who has the same birth date and address as the man involved in the incident was not returned.

It wasn’t the first time Brewster had been in a confrontation with the family. The July prior, Hamilton County prosecutors charged him with three counts of aggravated menacing and one count of having weapons while under disability — a fifth-degree felony — after Brewster threatened Clark, Ventura’s son Jefferson and other residents of the same Pleasant Ridge apartment complex with a firearm.

Clark says that incident started when Brewster became mad that the family was speaking Spanish.

“He thought we were talking about him,” she says. “We weren’t. But he got angry. He told us we need to speak English.”

Hamilton County court records show Brewster eventually pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated menacing and received a sentence of 180 days in jail.

Ventura, Clark and their children all moved away from the complex shortly afterward. They returned this July to speak with their former neighbors about the wage theft complaint, Clark says. That’s when the second confrontation with Brewster began.

In addition to the police reports and other documentation from the 2018 incident, CityBeat has asked for records about the July 2017 confrontation, which Clark says was video recorded on a bystander’s phone.

Ventura will be held on the ICE detainer in the Hamilton County Justice Center until a hearing next month.

The detainers are used to order local authorities to hold inmates who are removable from the United States. They are often a prelude to deportation.

Federal courts in Illinois, Texas and other states have ruled that such practices around ICE detainers violate the Fourth Amendment. Ventura’s suit also alleges that the practice violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

Ventura’s situation is especially troubling, his advocates say, because he is in the process of pursuing an asylum claim. He has cooperated with that process and has a hearing next month on his request.

His federal lawsuit names U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen, Hamilton County Sheriff Neil and the ICE agent who issued the detainer, called an I-200.

“Under the United States Constitution, a person charged with a crime is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt by the admission of probative evidence,” the lawsuit reads. “Under Ohio law, a person charged with a first degree misdemeanor has the right to have the charge tried to a jury verdict and said plea of not guilty stands unless convicted without exception by all the jurors.”

Beyond the specifics of his case, Ventura's situation illustrates questions about the relationship between ICE and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office.

About two and a half years ago, a broad coalition of faith groups, advocates for immigrants and others met with Hamilton County Sheriff Neil, a Democrat, to ask him to change polices followed under previous Sheriff Simon Leis, a Republican.

According to the coalition, Neil agreed to end the practice of calling ICE for anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant.

“Under Leis, anyone with an accent triggered a call to ICE,” immigration attorney Don Sherman says. The agreement was a big improvement over that policy — for a while. But Ventura’s detention shows the sheriff’s office isn’t following its agreement, Sherman says.

He believes the sheriff’s office has been actively reaching out to ICE with detainees they believe to be undocumented.

At any given time, a handful of inmates listed on the Justice Center’s inmate information website with traditionally Hispanic surnames have a “Y” next to their names, indicating a detainer. While other federal agencies and even other local law enforcement institutions can issue holds, Sherman says many are ICE detainers. A recent CityBeat review of that list found 10 such inmates, mostly in the justice center on minor charges.

“We don’t see this as the way the policy was initiated and agreed on,” Sherman says.

Ventura’s lawsuit alleges that evidence backs up this claim.  The lawsuit points out that the sheriff’s website listed Ventura with a hold shortly after he arrived at the justice center in the early hours of July 27. But ICE did not fax its I-200 form, which orders detainers, until hours later, at about 9 a.m. that morning.

The sheriff’s office has said in the past that it treats immigrants like any other person coming into the justice center. Neil is a Democrat, but has often skewed toward the conservative side of the political spectrum. He appeared onstage at a March 2016 campaign event for Donald Trump in West Chester with Trump and Butler County Sheriff Rick Jones, a nationally known advocate for zero-tolerance immigration enforcement. Neil later apologized for the appearance.

The idea that the sheriff’s office might in some way be working with ICE puts a wrinkle in the idea that Cincinnati is a so-called “sanctuary city” — that is, a place where local authorities won’t aid ICE in removing undocumented immigrants who have not committed violent crimes. Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and members of Cincinnati City Council proclaimed Cincinnati a sanctuary city in January 2017.

Attorneys and advocates say they’ve recently met with city and county officials as they seek answers for why Ventura is in jail. Meanwhile, his family waits.

Clark says Ventura’s detention has been hard. He helps her care for her two children, as well as his own son and a nephew over whom he has custody.

“It’s financially difficult,” she says. “And he’s like a dad to my kids. My 4-year-old asks all the time when he’s coming home.”

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