In February 2018, Elizabeth Ford, an immigration attorney, shared the story of Haitian asylum seeker Ansly Damus with Anne Hill, a local immigration activist. From there, a quick phone call to friends launched a series of events that would eventually help Ansly and many others find safety, community on the road to permanent legal status in the United States.
Moved by Ansly’s story, Hill contacted longtime friends Melody Hart and Gary Benjamin to see if they would consider sponsoring him during the immigration process. Historically, America has allowed asylum seekers easy parole because they have broken no laws. They are here legally seeking the safety of our shores.
Ansly had fled Haiti after having his life threatened by thugs connected to a local politician, Benjamin Ocenjac. In his role as an ethics teacher, Ansly had spoken before an audience of 200 teens and used Mr. Ocenjac as an example of how someone can be a ‘good guy’ turned bad.
A gang connected to Ocenjac, La Meezorequin, tracked Ansly down, beat him, burned his motorcycle, and threatened his life. Injured and terrified, Ansly and his wife, Adeline, decided he must flee and the first place he could get to was Ecuador, which requires no visa. From there, he went to Brazil for over a year on two temporary 12-month work permits before deciding to seek asylum in the United States. After being identified by a fellow Haitian toward the end of his stay in Brazil, he was worried that La Meezorequin would find him there.
So, Damus traveled – mostly by bus – from Brazil to southern California, a distance of over 5,000 miles. On October 23, 2016 he presented himself at the border and requested asylum as a victim of political persecution in Haiti. The border patrol determined that he had evidence of a credible threat and began his asylum application process.
Asylum seekers are held in what is euphemistically called ‘detention’ while they go through the process of winning asylum unless they have a sponsor who can feed, clothe, and house them while the process plays out. Until recently, over 90% of the immigrants seeking asylum were released to their sponsors in what the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency calls parole.
Since the beginning of the Trump administration, however, parole applications are routinely denied and asylum seekers are kept in jail, in hopes they will give up and go back to their country where death may await them.
Like many others, Ansly followed the laws in every country where he traveled. He broke no law in Haiti; nor in Brazil; nor in the United States. And yet, he had been held in a Geauga County jail for 14 months, outside of Cleveland, with no family or friends in Ohio. He hadn’t even known where Ohio was when he was moved from
When Hart and Benjamin agreed to support Ansly, they had no idea of the journey that would unfold for them. The couple anticipated that Ansly would be granted parole once sponsorship was approved and come live with them in the near future. Instead, it would take 10 months, a multi-state organizing effort, thousands of dollars in fundraising, help from the local and national media, and two ACLU lawsuits to finally gain Ansly’s parole in November 2018.
Once they agreed to be sponsors, the couple began visiting Ansly in jail every Sunday. They never saw him in person but talked through a screen and phone. Another friend, Dr. Chantal Dothey, visited him on Friday evenings. Those were the only two visits allowed him every week, each lasting only 30 minutes.
Ansly is a college-educated, social man. And from the start, he conversed well enough in English to ask for something to read. But the jail wouldn’t allow books to be delivered to a particular prisoner. So, Mel got books – one an economic treatise and the other a book to learn English from – and photocopied them, page by page to mail to the detention center.
She would write Ansly often and with her letters included pages from the books, one chapter at a time. She also sent him pictures of their house and his future bedroom. He especially liked the picture of their dog, Natasha, and he called Natasha “our dog” from the start.
Ansly had no contact with his family in the 14 months before Melody and Gary began visiting him. He could not call anyone because the jail would not allow long distance calls. He could not mail anyone as he had no money for postage or paper or pens. Thankfully, his new friends quickly found Adeline on Facebook and let her know he was alive. She responded quickly and they began a system where Adeline would email her a message and Melanie would print it out and send it to Ansly through the mail. Then he would write a letter back and mail it to Mel who would send it to Adeline.
Later Ansly’s interpreter, Coralie Saint-Louis, who lives in New York City, had Ansly call her every Sunday. Then she would merge Adeline in Haiti into the call, and the couple spoke for 30 minutes or more every Sunday for several months.
In spite of the support of clergy, medical professionals, neighbors and friends, Ansly’s first parole application was quickly denied in the spring of 2018. Following the denial, the group reached out to the ACLU and talked to a Cleveland.com reporter who was the first of many journalists to help bring attention to his plight.
They quickly learned were around 1,000 immigrants in the ICE system in situations similar to Ansly’s. So, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit in Washington DC and won a court order that ICE was violating due process. Ansly was the only plaintiff in the case who allowed his name, picture and story to be used in the lawsuit.
The court ordered ICE to return to the way it had treated asylum seekers under earlier administrations and to do an individualized treatment of parole applications, so they applied for parole again. The second application included letters from 3 doctors, public officials, a judge, and members of a support group they called “Ansly’s Army.” They also had over 700 signatures on a petition supporting his release mostly from local churches and synagogues. Benjamin, an attorney and magistrate, felt this application was ‘bullet proof.’ Nevertheless, ICE swiftly denied parole again.
The ACLU decided to file a second case for Ansly with the Federal Court in Ann Arbor, where decisions about Ansly’s case would be made. The complaint argued that Ansly had committed no crime; was not a risk at all; had sponsors who would take care of him while the asylum process plays out; and had been denied his constitutional and procedural rights.
Ansly’s Army chartered a bus of supporters who ventured the winter weather to stand wit Melody and Gary in support of Ansly. Local reporters also came along for the ride along with journalists from both Huffington Post the Washington Post who had been following the story on the ACLU website. The courtroom was so full they had to bring in extra chairs.
ICE has a form letter it is routinely used to deny applications for parole. In Ansly’s case two boxes were checked . . . one said he had too little community support and the other called him a flight risk.
Judge Judith Levy looked out at the crowd and told ICE it looked to her like there was plenty of support for Ansly. “Who are all these people?” she asked before also disqualifying the flight risk concerns and consenting to release him.
Ansly left ICE custody to live with Melody and Gary on November 30, 2018. Within a year, he was working full time and able to send support to his wife and children in Haiti. He is a licensed driver, purchased a car and recently moved into his own apartment and has been able to offer support and encouragement to other immigrants through the work that started on his behalf.
Building on the success of their efforts to garner support for Ansly, the original three – Anne, Melody and Gary – recognized an unmet need and countless people who were eager to help meet the needs of immigrants seeking legal status in the United States. With this in mind, AMIS, Inc. was formed as a registered 501c3 organization with primary goal of providing financial support and assisting with sponsorship and basic needs during the immigration process.
Unfortunately, the fight for Ansly’s freedom isn’t over yet. A number of bureaucratic obstacles have left him at continued risk of removal, in spite of his repeated ability to prove the need for asylum. Funds that were raised in the early days of AMIS are being set aside for ongoing legal fees.
These funds will he used to appeal on his behalf at a federal level, where the group hopes judges will less influenced by the political pressures that are known to affect elected official in state level courts.
Most recently, Ansly became a sponsor of sorts himself, by taking in a roommate, Jonas, another AMIS success story. You can read more of Jonas’ story here.