Undocumented immigrants go through hell to get to Cincinnati, where criminalizing rhetoric and violent crime often await

The experiences of immigrants — the depredations they’re seeking to escape, the staggering journeys they must make to get here and the dangers and sacrifices they face once they arrive — are often lost in America's political noise.

click to enlarge Undocumented immigrants go through hell to get to Cincinnati, where criminalizing rhetoric and violent crime often await
Andrew J. Nilsen

Six young children sit with Mother Paula Jackson on the floor of Mount Auburn’s Church of Our Savior as rainbow light filters through stained glass, filling the cavernous sanctuary around them.

“Can a pistol separate us from the love of God?” she asks them in Spanish and English. “¿Con odio? ¿Con racismo? Can hatred? Can racism? Can bad men who want to build walls separate us from the love of God? No.”

They’re in the middle of a funeral mass for Mario, a 31-year-old father of three who fled Guatemala for America 13 years ago.

Police reports from Mario’s Sept. 7 mugging say thieves shot him at 5 a.m. in the parking lot of his Price Hill apartment complex. Their bullets tore through his arm, his lung and his abdomen. He passed away a few days later.

The muggers — who were not immigrants — got only Mario’s phone.The children and the 15 or so adults gathered in the sanctuary are friends and family of Mario’s, many immigrants themselves.

Teresa*, one of Mario’s first cousins, lives with other family members in the same apartment complex where he was shot. She fled Guatemala two years ago after extortionists targeted a small store she ran and eventually made threats on her life.

“We’re scared. We’d like to move somewhere else,” she says, noting they’d like to leave the apartment complex.

But Teresa also says she would like to stay somewhere in Price Hill, a place that is familiar and full of faces she knows and trusts in a country that sometimes still seems strange and hostile.

It’s an intense, uncertain time to be an immigrant in America. The long-running influx of people from countries south of the U.S. border has been the subject of vitriol and fear here, most recently and explicitly from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” Trump said of immigrants from Mexico when he announced his bid for the GOP’s presidential nomination in June of 2015. Trump and other politicians have since doubled down on those talking points, expanding them to immigrants in general. They’ve promised to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico and to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, claiming they take American jobs and use social programs without paying into them.

Those comments have struck a chord with Trump’s mostly white base across the country and here in Ohio, perhaps the nation’s pivotal electoral battleground.

“Closing the country off to people who are dangerous, that resonates with me,” Trump supporter Myron Gleberman told CityBeat in March as he stood in line with his son for a rally featuring the candidate in West Chester. “Because they’re coming in without skills, without talent, without abilities.”

But as Trump uses the hot-button topic of immigration to try and win the White House, a starkly different reality exists for immigrants in places like Price Hill coming from countries like Guatemala, where many have faced economic desperation, ethnic intimidation and even government-led genocide.

Even as rhetoric swirling around the 2016 presidential election suggests that undocumented immigrants like Mario and Teresa are committing violence, national statistics refute that claim and law enforcement officials in Cincinnati say they’re more likely to be its victims. What’s more, their experiences — the depredations they’re seeking to escape, the staggering journeys they must make to get here and the dangers and sacrifices they face once they arrive — are often lost in the political noise.

Ten Days in the Desert

Six months ago, 17-year-old Juana* stood at the line through the Sonoran Desert separating the U.S. from Mexico, preparing to risk her life for the opportunity to live in Price Hill and get an education.

It wasn’t her first attempt to get here. She had recently spent a month in a Mexico City jail with hundreds of other immigrants who were caught trying to get to America. The Mexican government deported her back to Guatemala, where she spent a week recovering from the ordeal before trying again.

“The second time, they weren’t going to stop my dream,” she says during an interview at a coffee shop in East Price Hill, her hair pulled back tight and her bright red button-up shirt neatly pressed.

Through a translator, she recounts her journey.

As she looked out on a scene dominated mostly by vast expanses of emptiness punctuated by cacti and rocks, she called her mother one more time, then walked into the all-encompassing desert with the rest of her group.

Juana would spend 10 days in the Sonoran, drinking dirty water pooled on the ground and at times passing the remains of the last group of immigrants who had tried to make the journey only to die of exhaustion or gunshot wounds.

Juana and her group were at the mercy of their smugglers and the unforgiving whims of the desert.

“Only the coyote seemed to know where we were going,” she says, referring to the person paid to smuggle her. “We were terrified. I started out with a backpack with food and water in it, but that didn’t last the whole time. At first, we tried to rest at the hottest point of the day and move when it was cool, but by the end we were just walking all the time because we were desperate. It felt like we were in the desert for a year.”

Just weeks after her trip, temperatures in the region spiked to 120 degrees, sparking a record-setting wave of immigrant deaths in the Sonoran, according to reports from the region’s major daily newspaper, The Arizona Republic.

Back in Juana’s hometown of Tejutla, in the Guatemalan state of San Marcos, her family huddled in their church to pray for hours at a time. Finally, Juana made the joyous call to her mother — she had arrived on the other side of the desert. She was headed to a nondescript house in Phoenix, Arizona where coyotes hold those they smuggle as they await payment to take them to their final destinations.

It would cost $6,000 to get Juana from that anonymous house to East Price Hill. She would make the trip in a van full of other immigrants, accompanied by an armed guard who ensured no one tried to escape before payment was made. The money, covered in part by a friend in Cincinnati who had once been a neighbor in Tejutla, joined an initial $2,000 Juana’s family paid to get her from Guatemala to the U.S. through Mexico via long bus trips and a series of unfamiliar cars driven by unfamiliar men.

The stakes were high. Juana’s stepfather leveraged the family’s land as collateral for a loan to afford the coyotes’ fees. That land, in the barren San Marcos highlands where the family raised sheep to chisel out a meager existence, is the difference between eating and starvation.

By the Guatemalan government’s own measures, the share of the country’s population living in poverty grew from 51 percent in 2009 to almost 60 percent in 2014. In many places in Guatemala, school after sixth grade requires tuition, something Juana’s family couldn’t afford. Even if they could have, the nearest high school was two hours away.

For four years after her sixth grade graduation, Juana worked on her family’s land while her younger brothers finished school. The entire time, she thought about how to get to the U.S.

click to enlarge The Church of Our Savior in Mount Auburn has been a sanctuary for immigrants for over a decade. - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
The Church of Our Savior in Mount Auburn has been a sanctuary for immigrants for over a decade.

Fraught Histories

Juana says it was worth it to make the dangerous journey from the single-story houses in Tejutla to streets dotted with grand-but-aging Queen Anne-style homes in one of Cincinnati’s first hilltop suburbs.

It’s also the kind of trip that keeps anti-immigration activists up at night.

As Trump and his supporters point out, immigration into the U.S. has increased over the past half-century. The number of immigrants coming here has waxed and waned in that time — immigration from Mexico, for example, is actually declining — but the overall upward trend has stoked smoldering nativist sentiments among white, working-class conservatives.

In 1970, about five percent of the American population was made up of immigrants, according to research by the Migration Policy Institute. By 2014, it was 13 percent. Many of those immigrating here have come from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and other countries south of the U.S. border, both during immigration swells in the 1990s and more recent surges due to battles between drug cartels, political corruption and economic crises.

Guatemala’s history is especially brutal. For 36 years beginning in 1960, a bloody civil war raged in the country as leftist guerrillas sought to overthrow a dictatorial government. During that war, government-affiliated military forces undertook a well-documented genocide against indigenous Mayan citizens of Guatemala, spurring immigration to the United States.

The American government had some role in the strife. The U.S. backed the ruling regime, sending military and economic aid until at least the late 1970s. The United Nations brokered a peace agreement in 1996, but hardships have persisted. Today, many Guatemalans coming to Cincinnati, including Juana, Mario and Teresa, are of Mayan descent.

“You had just entire Mayan communities burned to the ground,” says Eastern Michigan University sociologist Dr. Maria Garcia, who has researched extensively in Guatemala. “To expect economic recovery after that extreme violence just isn’t reasonable. Those patterns of economic and systemic racism continue to exist today.”

In 2014, Guatemala had the 10th-highest murder rate in the world. Simply crossing a border doesn’t offer escape: Honduras and El Salvador, to the south, have the world’s highest and second-highest murder rates, respectively, and Belize, to the east, has the world’s seventh-highest.

Price Hill resident Nancy Sullivan has been an advocate for Central American immigrants since the 1980s, when the strife of the civil war sparked a so-called “sanctuary movement” across the country and here in Cincinnati. After moving to Price Hill from Northern Kentucky a number of years ago, Sullivan began realizing that the Guatemalan population there was growing. That positioned her well for her current role at Transformations CDC, an independent nonprofit that operates out of Mount Auburn’s Church of Our Savior.

On any given day, you’re likely to find Sullivan taking immigrants like Juana to work or helping others get to immigration hearings or language classes. She has negotiated with coyotes while picking up newly arrived immigrants and worked with law enforcement to help immigrants afraid to file police reports after they’ve been robbed.

Sullivan says she runs into a number of misconceptions about undocumented immigrants, mostly around the idea that they’re on welfare benefits, which she says they cannot obtain because they don’t have the multiple government documents proving citizenship and residency necessary to obtain them.

But there’s a deeper ignorance at play in the vilification of people coming from Guatemala, Mexico and elsewhere, she says.

It’s hard to understand the unpredictability and insecurity in areas like Tejutla without seeing it firsthand.“In many places, there are no police,” says Sullivan, who has visited the country several times. “I didn’t really understand that until I went there.”

Sullivan says this makes situations especially hard for women in Guatemala, who face the third-highest female murder rate in the world. There are ways for abused women to get into the U.S. legally from Guatemala, but they’re also very difficult.

Rose* sits among the din of post-service Sunday lunch at the Church of Our Savior in Mount Auburn with her two daughters seated next to her and her young son swaddled close in blankets slung around her shoulders.

Rose has been in Price Hill for two years and just recently received asylum through a niche in U.S. law for survivors of domestic violence from Central America. She made the trip to the U.S. with her children after multiple violent, potentially deadly incidents with her husband. It was a long ordeal.

“The journey was horrendous,” she says. “People were beaten, people were robbed. Children were taken from some people. We paid for immigration, but that doesn’t guarantee safety.”

When Rose and her children arrived, they formally applied for asylum, which is not guaranteed unless a person is willing to wait months or years in their home country for all the paperwork to go through. For Rose, that wasn’t possible, so she spent months going to court every two weeks in Cleveland and Columbus.

Applications for asylum have spiked in recent years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security obtained by CityBeat through a Freedom of Information Act request. In 2013, about 2,000 Guatemalans applied for asylum in the U.S., and in 2014, about 4,000 did. Last year, that number jumped to almost 8,500. As of June 30 this year, about 8,000 had applied. Those are the highest levels since the early 1990s, when tens of thousands of Guatemalans applied for asylum here, probably seeking to escape the aftermath of the country's civil war.

The  number of pending applications is up sharply as well. More than 12,500 applications are currently pending with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the most since 2006. As recently as 2010, there were only 362 pending applications.

“Getting a visa is often not an option,” Garcia says of the process of applying for legal immigration from within Guatemala. “Even applying for asylum is virtually impossible. You have to have access to economic and cultural resources, and there’s a history of exclusion in Guatemala from those things for Mayans. People just don’t understand that.”

Rose has very defined opinions about politicians like Trump and their claims that immigrants are violent criminals.

“Most people saying that don’t realize what we have left behind, and what we go through to get here and to get asylum,” she says. “We have children, and we want safety for them.”

click to enlarge Santa Maria Community Services is a hub for various kinds of help in Price Hill. Eighty percent of the organization's Spanish-speaking clients are Guatemalan, Program Director Luz Schemmel says. - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Santa Maria Community Services is a hub for various kinds of help in Price Hill. Eighty percent of the organization's Spanish-speaking clients are Guatemalan, Program Director Luz Schemmel says.

Coming to Price Hill

It’s unclear exactly how many Guatemalans have fled their homeland for Price Hill and other Cincinnati neighborhoods. Immigrants come to Cincinnati from a number of countries, both legally and through extra-legal means.

In Price Hill, many undocumented immigrants are coming from places south of the U.S. border like Guatemala and Mexico. Data from the Migration Policy Institute suggests that 849,000 people emigrated from Guatemala to the United States between 2009 and 2013, including those who came through legal channels. About 4,000 of them came to Cincinnati, according to MPI, mostly to neighborhoods like Price Hill and Carthage.

But that number doesn’t account for more recent immigrants. In 2014 alone, increasing violence and dire economic circumstances spurred tens of thousands of Guatemalans, many of them unaccompanied minors, to come to the U.S.

Though it’s far from precise, Census data can offer a snapshot of the increases in immigration in Price Hill. In 2010, ZIP code 45204, which roughly represents Lower Price Hill, had about 181 people from Guatemala. By 2014, that same ZIP code had 322 people of non-Mexican Hispanic descent, according to the American Community Survey, many of them likely Guatemalans. Neighboring ZIP code 45205, which roughly encompasses East and West Price Hill, saw a similar increase, going from 425 in 2010 to 1,030 in 2014.

Luz Schemmel of Santa Maria Community Services, a social service organization that has been in Price Hill for half a century, says the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants into the neighborhood began more than 15 years ago and was spurred in part by unrest like the Guatemalan civil war. She estimates about 80 percent of the Spanish-speaking clients Santa Maria serves come from that Central American country.

Population decline over the last few decades followed by the Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis left much of Price Hill undervalued on the rental market. That makes it cheap for people who are eking out an austere existence and sending large portions of what they earn back to places like Guatemala to support families there.

“People are coming just to survive,” Sullivan says. “If you walk into an apartment of an American making the same amount a Guatemalan is making, they’ll have a fair amount of furniture and whatever. That’s not true with a lot of the Guatemalans. It’s either buy a bed to sleep on or send money home for food.”

Family members and friends followed the first Guatemalan immigrants to Price Hill. Today, you can see their influence at tiendas (corner shops) and eateries bearing signs in Spanish boasting Central American favorites like papusas and fried plantains. Their presence is also apparent every Sunday, when many stream into the bilingual mass at the majestic, block-long Holy Family catholic church in the heart of East Price Hill.

Activists like Sullivan say the Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants who come to Price Hill have become a linchpin of the local economy.

“If these people were suddenly taken back to Guatemala, the economy in East Price Hill would fall flat,” she says. “Look at all the apartments, all the food, all the things that depend on them.”

There’s a pitched, unsettled debate about whether immigrants like Juana, Mario and Rose are a positive or negative influence on the wider U.S. economy. In 2010 alone, undocumented immigrants in Ohio paid almost $73 million in state and local taxes, mostly payroll taxes, data from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy shows. Nationally, ITEP's estimates place that figure as high as $11 billion a year.

But Trump, and many other national and local conservative politicians, say immigrants from places like Mexico and Guatemala displace low-skilled American workers. Some academics, including conservative-leaning Harvard economics professor George Borjas, agree. Others, however, including University of California economist Giovanni Peri, have disputed Borjas’ analysis and data.

click to enlarge On Sept. 7, Mario, an immigrant from Guatemala, was shot for his cellphone outside his Price Hill apartment complex. He died a few days later from his wounds. - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
On Sept. 7, Mario, an immigrant from Guatemala, was shot for his cellphone outside his Price Hill apartment complex. He died a few days later from his wounds.

More Often Victims

The picture is clearer when it comes to another, larger concern many Trump supporters have about immigrants: that they’re criminals here to commit violent offenses. Trump and his surrogates cite specific and dramatic examples of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, often bringing victims and their families along on the campaign trail. However, local authorities and national statistics suggest such crimes are rare.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission measures prison inmate demographics by citizenship status. Its data, compiled in a report by the Congressional Research Office, shows that in 2010, just 0.4 percent of non-citizens in federal prisons, including undocumented immigrants, were there for violent crimes, compared to 5 percent of U.S. citizens in those prisons for those offenses. Meanwhile, 70 percent of non-citizens in prison were there for non-violent, immigration-related offenses. The data also shows that immigrants make up a smaller proportion of state prison populations incarcerated for violent offenses than their share of the general population.

In a 2007 report, the Immigration Policy Center made a case for the lack of threat from immigrants, even stating that they’re less likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens.

“For every ethnic group without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants,” the report reads. “This holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population.”

Cincinnati Police officer Rick Longworth has been the department’s Immigrant Affairs Liaison since he helped create the position two years ago. He says immigrants here commit few offenses and are more likely to be victims of crimes.

“There’s crime in any community, but really the unique numbers that stand out are the victimization rates, not the commission of crimes,” Longworth says. “That’s absolutely been my experience.”

Because they often can’t open bank accounts, many undocumented immigrants will cash their payroll checks at local tiendas and carry their earnings around in cash.

“Criminals look for soft targets,” Longworth says. “They see that in the Guatemalan community."

Longworth estimates only one in five victimized immigrants report crimes to police. Fear of law enforcement informed by Guatemala’s Mayan genocide and complex language barriers are partly to blame for the disconnect, he says. Many Guatemalans coming from the San Marcos area speak Mayan dialects, like Mam, and Spanish only secondarily.

There are efforts underway to bridge divides, however, including an identification card recognized by all city offices available to undocumented immigrants.

Seven hundred people waited in line Aug. 22 to get the ID, issued by the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati, when it was introduced at Woodward High School in Bond Hill. People began showing up at 10:30 the night before to wait for the cards, Longworth says.

“That shows how desperate those people are,” he says. “All that ID is doing is validating your existence. It doesn’t confer any special privileges. If you’re willing to wait 12 hours to have that, that’s pretty impressive and pretty sad.”

click to enlarge The Church of Our Savior - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
The Church of Our Savior

An Uncertain Future

Immigration remains a political football, even on the local level, with outspoken conservatives like Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones promising crackdowns on “illegals” making their way into the region.

“You would think Ohio... wouldn’t have an illegal immigrant problem, but we do,” Jones said to the Daily Beast last year, claiming immigrants took local jobs and committed violent crime. “In this county, we’ve had people killed, molested by illegals. Not thousands of them, but just one is too much. Our governor and elected officials do nothing.”

Despite the rhetoric, local officials can only do so much one way or the other in the largely federal realm of immigration law. But immigrants have plenty of cause for anxiety on that level, too. In February, a visit by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to the Westmont Drive apartment complex in East Price Hill caused widespread fear among undocumented immigrants living in the neighborhood. No massive immigration raids followed those visits, but the attention was enough to set undocumented families on edge.

Many in the Price Hill community appear to stand behind their immigrant neighbors. One month after the panic around the ICE visit, and just days before Trump’s first campaign rally in the Greater Cincinnati area, more than 300 turned out for a pro-immigration march through East Price Hill.

The line of faith leaders, activists and neighborhood residents standing in the early spring chill stretched for blocks. They carried signs reading, “Love Your Neighbor” and “Stop Separating Families.”

Having lived in Price Hill for six months now, Juana says she feels welcome in the neighborhood. But she also sometimes worries she could become a victim of crime.

“I don’t like to go out alone,” she says. “My block is a block where a lot of people have been robbed.”

Mostly, though, she’s preoccupied with work. Once she made it to the U.S., Juana paid $1,000 for false documents and took two jobs, one as a janitor and another in a hotel. Working six days a week, she sent most of her money home to help pay off the loans her stepfather took out. So far, she’s been able to get her family’s land out of jeopardy, but still owes more than $5,000.

To make time for school, she’s cut down to one job working a late shift at a warehouse in Northern Kentucky. After she gets off work, she sleeps a few hours and then attends a nearby high school in the Cincinnati Public Schools system. In her rare spare time, she recently organized a workshop for her peers about sexual and relationship health issues, an outgrowth of her ambition to get a job in the health care field someday.

“I want to be a nurse to start with,” she says. “We’ll see after that.”

How difficult that will be depends on a huge number of variables, not the least of which will be the outcome of the 2016 election and highly contentious efforts in Congress to extend a path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

As she waits for the huge, unpredictable wheels of national politics to turn, Juana spends hours every Sunday learning English via a computer program in the basement of the Church of Our Savior, working feverishly to take the next steps on her long, continuing journey in America. ©

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