CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — They had decided to welcome him even if the United States would not, so Melody Hart and her husband, Gary Benjamin, arrived at the courthouse with gifts for an immigrant they’d never met. They carried outfits for him in three sizes and a new winter coat to guard against the Ohio cold. They brought instruction manuals to help him learn English, a booklet of hymns to sustain his spirit and bottles of champagne in case he walked out of the courtroom free after being detained by the U.S. government for 25 months.
They also brought a charter bus filled with 32 friends from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a group consisting mostly of retirees, church members and community activists. Together they traveled four hours into Michigan to witness the latest court hearing in the ongoing saga of Ansly Damus, a Haitian ethics professor who had come to the California-Mexico border in the fall of 2016 to seek asylum. Rather than enter the country illegally, Damus had followed U.S. protocol by presenting himself to Border Patrol and saying he feared for his life. Then he had been handcuffed and flown to a detention facility with empty beds in Ohio, where he’d spent the past two years waiting for a final resolution in his case.
The government had denied Damus parole because it considered him a flight risk with no meaningful connections in Ohio, but now the courtroom was filled with Ohioans who had come to support him.
“I hope this shows that people in this country care about what’s happening to him,” Hart, 66, told her husband as a courtroom security guard left to get extra chairs. “He has to believe that he’s come to the right place.”
She had spent the past year trying to deliver that message to Damus, even as the country around her was becoming increasingly resistant to a rising number of asylum seekers including an estimated 7,000 who caravanned last month toward the California border on the same path that Damus had taken two years before. Most asylum seekers now wait at least several months for a final decision in their case, but there are also those like Damus, who became stuck in an overwhelmed system where cases can drag on for years.