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Attorneys pivot to free immigrants from Butler County Jail

HAMILTON, Ohio — For the first time in about 17 years, the Butler County Sheriff’s Office will no longer work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants.

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones terminated the contract with the Department of Homeland Security this week.

Over the next 60 days, attorneys said immigrants will be released, moved to another jail or deported.

“I think the chances of release for a lot of folks is good if they have representation, and, right now, we don't have access to good data on how many people are there and how many have lawyers,” said Brian Hoffman, an attorney for Ohio Strategic Immigration Litigation & Outreach.

The sheriff's office said it started working with ICE in 2003. The deal was to hold immigrants while federal judges decided to grant them asylum or deport them.

These are civil cases in which the immigrant is either criminally innocent or served their sentence for a crime.

WCPO first told you about Sara Mendez Morales in April 2021.

"This is somebody who was victimized her entire life,” said her attorney, Kim Alabasi. "I mean, it's a very long, horrific story."

Morales, who has survived cancer, human trafficking and domestic violence, reported abuse in 2019. Prosecutors accused her of child endangerment, and she served her sentence, at which point, a judge agreed to grant her asylum. However, ICE will not release her, citing the seriousness of the crime.

Dema Diawara is a former detainee. He’s deported now.

“No hot water. No clothes. We are treated like animals at Butler County jail,” said Diawara. “They are just making money on people. That’s it,” said Diawara.

In 2017, WCPO’s investigative team told you the federal government used taxpayer dollars to pay the jai about $8.2 million dollars over five years to house ICE detainees.

How much federal funding the jail has received since beginning to hold ICE detainees was not immediately available.

“I think immigrants sounding alarm about the Butler County Jail set off a chain reaction,” said Anna Nathanson, who is part of the team that filed a civil rights lawsuit after dozens reported medical neglect of cancer patients, severe assault, no hot water and uncooked food.

“After all that happened, the Biden Administration and ICE started asking difficult questions to Butler County Sheriff and contract was cut,” she said.

Sheriff Jones released a statement this week saying:

“We operate an efficient correctional facility and federal officials continue to add unreasonable and cost prohibitive mandates to hold these illegal immigrants. With the crisis at the border getting worse, it concerns me that the feds will ship detainees to my facility, then release them to the streets of my community under some technicality. It’s better to just end this arrangement now, than to let that happen. Unlike this current administration, I’m still a firm believer that our government should strictly enforce the immigration laws and I will continue to promote that stance at every opportunity.”

“What Sheriff Jones is really saying is if the feds, if the Biden Administration is going to require him to treat immigrants like people, he doesn't want them in his jail anymore,” said Hoffman.

WCPO was still waiting for ICE to comment as of Friday evening.

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