Mellow Sunday afternoon sunlight streams through the sliding glass door of a small, two-bedroom apartment in a sprawling complex called the Willows of Springdale, falling on a group sitting in a circle of folding chairs and green padded seats arranged in the unit’s living room.
The room is mostly bare, save for a whiteboard propped up on an easel and signs with common phrases and names for items spelled out in English and Spanish. The hum of people speaking the latter fills the space, volleying back and forth between the fast, flowing tones of a handful of residents who immigrated here from Guatemala and Honduras and the slower, more deliberate cadence of volunteers.
On one couch, a woman from Honduras in a short-sleeved orange sweater cradles a baby. Her husband was deported just weeks ago, and she has come looking for help feeding the child. Next to her, a group of men from Guatemala sit, their shirts tucked in, their hair neatly combed and gelled. One named Domingo is looking for help with the difficulties he’s having enrolling his nephew in school. Another, Bartolo, is here because he fears deportation.
Across from them, in a folding chair, another woman holds a young boy on her lap. He flops languidly, asleep, as she struggles to keep him upright. The neatly-dressed men across from her get up off the couch and motion for her to lay the child down.
He sleeps peacefully there for the rest of the meeting — a weekly gathering of the Centro Comunitario de Los Willows, a group that has of late worked overtime to connect the complex’s immigrants with all manner of help in a very uncertain, difficult time.
Some come for rides to local churches with food pantries. Others come for English language classes, or to speak with immigration rights advocates about issues related to deportation, or passports or enrolling their children in school.
At a recent meeting, one woman originally from Guatemala named Erma came with her young daughter, who had spilled soup and burned herself. Erma didn’t have a car to go to the emergency room. A volunteer took her and her child there immediately.
The volunteers at the center run the gamut: members of various faith communities, longtime local immigration activists, young adults in sneakers from Cincinnati’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, people who immigrated themselves long ago who have advanced Spanish skills and can interpret and engage deeply with the families at the Willows.
The unassuming complex, and others like it in Greater Cincinnati, have found themselves in recent months at the eye of a national political storm around immigration — one that has had a number of spillover effects on immigrant families.
Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been staking out local apartment complexes like the Willows 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 the Willows. 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.
The Immigration Debate
New policies by the administration of President Donald Trump that have led to the separation of migrant children and their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border continue to make big headlines, and large workplace raids in Ohio have also grabbed national attention.
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, in June, scooped up 114 workers 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. The department believes the workplaces in question may have knowingly hired the immigrants anyway.
“Unlawful employment is one of the key magnets drawing illegal aliens across our borders,” said Steve Francis, Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge of Michigan and Ohio, in a statement following a June 19 raid on a meat-packing plant in Salem.
While workplace raids and family separation at the border have caught national attention, there has been little reported about the actions of ICE agents in places like the suburbs of Cincinnati, where children are also sometimes left behind when immigrants are detained.
Advocates for immigrants have zeroed in on a small, low-slung ICE facility in Blue Ash, which they believe agents involved in recent arrests are using as a base of operations.
Activists have held protests at the obscure site in recent weeks, hoping to draw attention to its existence and the separation of families ICE has overseen.
Some of the parents separated from their children were actively seeking asylum when they were picked up.
“Many are fleeing gangs, extortion, random violence,” says Nancy Sullivan, immigrant activist and 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. 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.”
Visitations Via Video
When Jose was 5, he 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 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 suburban Cincinnati, he has new challenges to worry about — including separation from his young son when he was recently detained by ICE.
“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.”
Honduras, along with neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, have among 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 as it propped up governments in those countries that sometimes turned corrupt or dictatorial.
Against the backdrop of 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. “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. But that wasn’t the end of the worry.
Recently, Jose was detained and sent to the Butler County Jail’s 200-cell wing that houses immigrants awaiting potential deportation. Jose says he was detained after his ankle monitor malfunctioned and he visited the Blue Ash ICE facility to check in.
While in jail, he saw his son just once a week via a black and white TV monitor, he says. 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.
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 their child or children 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 aforementioned Salem raids.
Other times, however, children are left in the care of family, friends or neighbors. That has implications for their mental health, some child therapists say.
Sarah Madrigal de Fernandez is a therapist at Cincinnati Public Schools who has worked mostly with unaccompanied immigrants for the past four years.
“I don’t think it’s entirely necessary to have an expert tell you how traumatic it is for children to be forcibly separated from their parents,” she says. “But there is a lot of science about how it affects brain chemicals and how trauma effects development. What it boils down to is, these kids struggle. They don’t feel safe because they don’t know if their parents will be home when they get there. They don’t feel safe because where they come from isn’t safe. They spend a lot of time looking over their shoulders.”
Children struggling with the loss of a parent to deportation often don’t have many places they can turn.
“There isn’t really funding for mental healthcare for this population,” she says. “They don’t have the access. There aren’t the resources available to hire the people needed to deal with the trauma.”
A Place for Help
Advocates are trying to fill in the gaps, helping to care for the families of individuals who have found themselves picked up by ICE. In Springdale, that task has fallen to volunteers with Centro Comunitario de Los Willows who work out of a community center in a small apartment.
The Springdale Health Department founded the center in 2015 after a high-profile murder at the apartments. Officials took a public health approach to addressing issues there, and, in return for helping the owners get the buildings’ occupancy rate up to near-full, they were allowed use of a first-floor unit tucked away in one of the buildings in the middle of the complex.
The center has played a big role in the community since — helping, with nonprofit and corporate partners, to coordinate response to a fire at the complex in the summer of 2017, marshaling donations for a playground built there the same year and holding a sports-themed summer camp for kids living at the complex and elsewhere.
Springdale Health Commissioner Matt Clayton says the department’s role in the center is about facilitating collaborations and bringing public health services to places where people need them, instead of simply sitting and waiting for people to make their way to them.
He stresses that the department’s services are for everyone. But places like the Willows are where needs are greatest.
In 2016, about 85 percent of residents at the Willows were Hispanic, though that dropped somewhat in the last year. Many of those residents were experiencing poverty. Ninety-six percent of students attending the elementary school next door are below the poverty line.
According to Census data, Hispanic households in the Springdale area have a median household income roughly $20,000 a year less than their white counterparts, and the average life expectancy for a Hispanic individual there trails a white person’s by eight and a half years.
It was clear, Clayton says, that the Willows was a place where the department could make a difference.
“In the course of our community health assessment, we determined that we had significant poverty and opportunity for improvement in certain communities,” he says, referring to a study the department undertook to determine areas where it could be of most use. “We saw this great opportunity to make an impact at the Willows.”
The health department doesn’t run Centro Comunitario de Los Willows — it’s just one of a number of groups working out of the space run by volunteers of all stripes.
Elaine Dulovich is a pharmacy tech by trade. She was looking for volunteer opportunities a year ago when a friend told her about Centro Comunitario, and, eager for a chance to work on her own Spanish language skills, she signed on to teach English classes to children there.
She’s loved that part of the job, helping students from ages 3 to 17 with basic language skills as well as fun tasks like gardening.
But there is another dimension to the work at the center. Dulovich came just months before deportations started among residents of the complex. She’s seen the toll it has taken on families.
“It makes me sick to my stomach,” she says. “It’s so visible in the day-to-day lives of the people I work with here. I really appreciate the family structure and the family strength I’ve seen in the residents there, though. They’re so concerned with their families, and with bringing up kids with good values. I’ve seen them take in children whose parents have been detained. A neighbor is almost always there to look after the children.”
There are other challenges volunteers like Dulovich must contend with. One of the more vexing lately is making sure students are able to enroll in nearby schools when their parents have been deported, are still in their home countries, or simply can’t prove they have a permanent address because they’re sharing an apartment with others to save money.
“I’m seeing the possibility of kids not being enrolled,” she says. “We’ve gathered up about eight volunteers who are willing to teach kids who aren’t able to enroll in school. We don’t know how it’s going to work out, or if it will be needed — I hope it isn’t — but we have to be ready for that.”
For some who have been separated from loved ones by the deportations, the help from advocates is a blessing — but not enough to keep them afloat.
Erma, the mother who brought her daughter to Centro Comunitario with burns, is sitting with her friend Aselda in a small room usually set aside for children at the Willows Center. Both wear glowing pink blouses and worried looks. With them are two volunteers helping the two mothers work out a long trip that will take them back to Guatemala, likely for good.
The five-day bus trip will cost about $900 for each of them. That’s not counting Erma’s three children and Aselda’s two — all U.S. citizens.
“I’ve been here for four and a half years,” Aselda says. “I love the United States. There are a lot of kind people here who have tried to help us. But I’m not a U.S. resident, and getting documents is very challenging. I probably have to leave, and I don’t think I’ll come back.”
Both Erma and Aselda have seen their husbands deported in the last four months. Erma’s husband was driving to work when he was stopped by ICE, detained, and eventually kicked out of the country. Aselda’s spouse was picked up at the Willows itself.
Without their partners, the two say, it is simply too difficult to stay in the United States.
“I feel very sad,” Erma says. “He was our breadwinner. It’s very, very hard, with three children by myself, to afford rent and food and utilities. I have no income.”
Erma left Guatemala for the United States 13 years ago to escape crushing poverty and instability, and has lived at the Willows for more than a decade.
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.
When she got to the U.S., Erma worked until she had her baby a year ago — but her husband’s job was enough for the family to eke out an existence.
Now, with him gone, she is finding it impossible to do all the things she needs to do to be a good mother — avoid deportation and potential separation from her children and afford food and rent and utilities without the government assistance she isn’t qualified for. The only choice, she feels, is to go back to Guatemala, where the family can at least be together.
It will be difficult for her children, she says, who have only ever known the U.S.
“I’m not sure what it’s going to be like,” she says. “I don’t know how it will be. It’s unknown. Emotionally, it could be very hard for the kids.”
Others are struggling to stay. But 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.”
Editor’s note: For safety reasons, we have withheld the full names of sources who asked that they not be printed.