When he was 5, Jose witnessed a brutal massacre at Rio Lempa, a river on the border of Honduras and neighboring El Salvador.
Eyewitness accounts from aid workers, doctors and others say troops from both countries, including Salvadoran forces in a helicopter, reportedly shot and killed dozens of refugees crossing the river’s 75 feet of fast-flowing water to escape a civil war between the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government and leftist guerillas. Another 10 to 15 children drowned in the river during the incident, eyewitness accounts suggest.
Jose, who asked that his full name be withheld for safety reasons, escaped harm in the massacre and grew up to work in a farmer’s cooperative in Honduras. But that wasn’t the end of the hardships he faced.
Now, more than a year after fleeing to the United States, he has new challenges to worry about — including separation from his young son as the Trump administration clamps down hard on undocumented immigrants.
“I have a 7-year-old boy, and I didn’t want him being harmed,” he says of his reasons for seeking asylum in the U.S. “I feared for him. That’s why I decided to come here.”
New policies by the president’s administration have led to the separation of migrant children and their parents at the border and made big headlines. But less well-known are the actions of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in places like the suburbs of Cincinnati, where children are left behind when immigrants — including those seeking asylum — are detained.
ICE agents have been staking out local suburban Cincinnati apartment complexes with large numbers of immigrants living in them and detaining undocumented people as they leave for work, attorneys for separated families say. In one recent case, both the mother and father of three children were apprehended at a large apartment complex in Springdale. The children, the youngest of whom is 4, came home to missing parents. They are now in the care of neighbors as they await their parents’ fate.
Advocates for immigrants believe those agents are often working out of a small, low-slung and unlabeled building in Blue Ash, where many immigrants seeking asylum must come to check in and do paperwork. In addition to two small offices for those meetings, the center also has three cells to hold immigrants until they can be taken to the Butler County jail, attorneys say.
In addition to agents from ICE, at least one private contractor from a company called GEO, which runs private prisons across the country, is also reportedly active at the site.
ICE says its recent activities across the country are about seizing undocumented immigrants working with forged documentation and living in the U.S. illegally. It has seized hundreds of immigrants at workplace raids in the northern part of Ohio, for instance.
But some of the people it detains locally like Jose are seeking asylum from political instability and crime in their countries.
“Many are fleeing gangs, extortion, random violence,” says Nancy Sullivan, director of Cincinnati-based nonprofit Transformations CDC. “They present themselves as asylum seekers at the border, which the Geneva Convention allows them to do. Families with daughters fear they will be kidnapped, raped and trafficked. Their sons are often brutally forced into gangs — it’s ‘join us or die.’ These are not people with criminal records. There is no judicial warrant for their arrest. They’re vulnerable, easy pickings. And the children — what happens to them? When they come home, they have no idea where their parents have gone, potentially no means of support.”
After his childhood brush with a now-notorious massacre, Jose’s journey to the United States was propelled by more violence.
“In Honduras, there are all kinds of crime, from the government all the way down through the layers at the lowest level,” he says.
The country and neighboring El Salvador have the highest murder rates in the world, according to 2016 United Nations data.
The violence is part of a long history of instability in the region — including a series of political shakeups in which the United States played a part.
The U.S. has had some manner of military presence in Honduras since the late 19th century, when United Fruit began doing business there. A century later, between 1981 and 1991, the U.S. poured nearly half a billion dollars into military aid for the country, despite the fact the army there showed troubling signs of corruption, violence and human rights abuses. Some Honduran troops and police officers attended the U.S.-run School of the Americas, which trained soldiers to fight leftist rebels.
The aid from the U.S. was a hedge against leftist revolutions in nearby countries that American officials felt may have been backed by the Soviet Union. Despite the end of the Cold War, the United States still provides Honduras with millions of dollars in military aid. In 2009, the army there staged a coup to oust its democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya over a constitutional amendment he proposed that would have likely moved the country leftward.
Against the backdrop of corruption, crime and political instability, daily life is hard. The mostly impoverished farmers working in Jose’s cooperative had a number of clashes with larger landowners and the Honduran government and lived in constant fear of reprisal.
“We were being threatened by the police and the guards that guard nearby landowners,” he says. “They threatened us with death. If they couldn’t get to you, they would sometimes threaten and kill your family.”
Jose recalls times where he would come home to find some of his fellow farmers killed. Those incidents steeled his determination to save himself and his son.
A little more than a year ago, they made the difficult journey to the United States to try for asylum and escape the death threats and violence they had experienced. They settled in a northern Cincinnati suburb. But even that wasn’t the end of the worry.
As part of his asylum claim, Jose wears a monitoring device around his ankle. Recently, he believed it was malfunctioning and says he called the ICE office in Blue Ash where he has regular asylum check-ins to report the problem. He was told to visit the office. When he did, he was detained and sent to the Butler County Jail’s 200-cell wing that houses immigrants awaiting potential deportation.
While there, he saw his son just once a week via a black and white TV monitor. He spent roughly a month detained there, fearing that he would be deported and that he would not be able to support his son or see him again.
Local immigration attorney Jorge Martinez says that seeking asylum isn’t as simple as filing out a form and waiting, especially when a person fears for their life.
“There is not another legal way for them to come, unless their mother or father or wife is a U.S. citizen,” he says.
He’s also adamant that many talking points politicians and anti-immigrant groups hammer — that immigrants are costly to taxpayers and don’t contribute to society — aren’t true.
“It’s not true that they come to abuse our welfare system,” he says. “They don’t, but they (do) pay into our social security system, which they never use.”
The federal government has set up mechanisms that allow the undocumented to pay taxes, including the Taxpayer Identification Number, created in 1996. In 2010 alone, undocumented immigrants in Ohio paid almost $73 million in state and local taxes, mostly payroll taxes, data from the nonpartisan Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy shows. Nationally, ITEP's estimates place that figure as high as $12 billion a year.
The Trump administration's efforts to ramp up immigration enforcement have had a big impact in Ohio, where some of the largest raids in the nation so far hit the northern part of the state last month. Those raids resulted in the arrest of hundreds of immigrants at various meat packing and garden work sites in Massillon, Salem, Sandusky and Norwalk, Ohio. That last raid scooped up 114 people who nonprofit aid organizations estimate have 200 children.
The Department of Homeland Security says many of those immigrants have forged documents and are working illegally, and believes that the workplaces in question may have knowingly hired them anyway.
"Unlawful employment is one of the key magnets drawing illegal aliens across our borders," said Steve Francis, HSI special agent in charge for Michigan and Ohio, in a statement following a June 19 raid on a meat-packing plant in Salem. "Businesses who knowingly harbor and hire illegal aliens as a business model must be held accountable for their actions."
In some cases, if there are no other caretakers, ICE will release a parent — tethered to an ankle monitor like Jose’s — to look after a child as their case progresses.
“In the context of any enforcement action, ICE utilizes prosecutorial discretion on cases involving humanitarian concerns, such as health or family considerations,” ICE said in its statement on the Salem raids. “Accordingly, during the June 19, action, several individuals were processed and released from custody the same day as a result of humanitarian considerations.”
Other times, however, children are left in the care of family, friends or neighbors.
Activists are worried similar large-scale raids could be coming to Greater Cincinnati. In the meantime, they’re trying to care for the families of individuals who have found themselves picked up by ICE.
Last week, about three dozen activists with the Southwest Ohio Immigrant Support Network gathered outside the ICE office in Blue Ash holding signs reading “no one is illegal” and others, which pointed out for passing traffic that the unmarked building is an ICE facility.
At an apartment complex in Springdale, a group of activists has set up a center for immigrants in a small, tucked-away apartment. Currently, the center is offering English classes, food and hygiene products, rides and other help.
On a recent Sunday, a handful of people from Guatemala who live in there gathered in the apartment's small living room to seek assistance. One, a man who had come to the U.S. recently with his nephew, was working to get the boy enrolled in school. Another, a mother of six, was struggling to feed her children in the aftermath of her husband's deportation. Another mother showed up with a small child suffering burns from spilled soup. A volunteer gave them a ride to the emergency room.
Even with the help of attorneys and advocates, the future is tenuous for people like Jose, who was eventually released from Butler County Jail on $7,500 bond. That meant he was reunited with his son and can take care of him for now. But it’s unclear what the future will hold.
“We came here not to cause any trouble or do anything bad,” he says of himself and his son. “We just want an opportunity.”