I-Team: Taxpayers spend millions on local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees

HAMILTON, Ohio -- Whether they're accused drug traffickers or family men with no criminal record, immigration detainees at the Butler County Jail have, together, cost taxpayers millions.

The federal government has paid the jail about $8.2 million over the past five years to house U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, according to the Butler County Sheriff's Office. They are currently holding 150 for ICE at a daily rate of $53.20 each.

There was also a significant increase in the number of detainees booked into the jail last month compared to the same period last year. Sixty-nine were detained in February of this year. In 2016 that number was 45, and in 2015 it was 23.

ICE removed 240,255 people from the country in 2016. Most of them -- more than 83 percent -- fell under what the Department of Homeland Security calls "Priority 1." Those include national security threats, convicted felons and those caught at the border entering the country illegally, according to ICE data.

However, only 58 percent of those removed from the country were convicted criminals, ICE records show. Forty-two percent had not been convicted of any crime, though most of them were caught at the border.

Although most of the detainees were born in Mexico and other Central American countries, some are from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia.

In total, ICE records show the federal government spends about $2 billion per year on nearly 31,000 detention beds across the country.

Who are the detainees?

Among those detained in Butler County is 30-year-old Li Li Chen, a Chinese woman who entered the U.S. illegally when she was 18 in 2004. Authorities said she used a fraudulent passport obtained by a smuggler. She was released on a $15,000 immigration bond.

Li Li Chen

Chen was ordered to leave the country later that year, but didn't. When ordered to appear for a hearing in 2007, Chen didn't show up. She has been fighting for asylum in the U.S. ever since, saying she would face persecution back in China due to the country's then-one-child policy, according to court records.

In March 2015, ICE detained Chen and planned to remove her from the country. On the plane, records state Chen ate soap from the bathroom to make herself sick, forcing the pilot to return the plane to the gate and let her off.

Chen was placed in the Butler County Jail later that month and has been there for nearly two years. She has been charged with no crimes and has no criminal record, but federal taxpayers have spent roughly $37,000 so far to keep her locked up.

Ted Cox, a New York-based immigration attorney who represents Chen, said the government's decision to jail her is "retribution for her resisting the decision to remove her."

WCPO reached out to ICE for comment on Chen's case, but the agency did not respond.

Chen is married and has two children. Her husband and children are all U.S. citizens (her husband got his citizenship in 2015). They own a restaurant together. She has filed tax returns while in the U.S. and has developed community ties in church and her children's activities, authorities said in court records.

Not all of the ICE detainees in the jail have clean records. The US Drug Enforcement Administration has described 35-year-old Francisco Mireles in court records as a leader in a "large-scale cocaine trafficking organization."

Francisco Mireles

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Mireles was previously deported three years ago, but he was arrested Jan. 30 after Cincinnati DEA agents said they got word he was back and involved in drug trafficking.

Another ICE detainee in Butler County has been removed from the United States five times following illegal entries, according to records. Alejandro Heras-Real pleaded guilty to felony illegal entry and was banned from the U.S. for life after his previous arrest.

Heras-Real was arrested again Aug. 19 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and was booked into the Butler County Jail Feb. 17 -- his 27th birthday.

Alejandro Heras-Real

Emmanuel Boamah, 33, served a 16-month prison sentence for his role in thefts. After he was released from prison, Boamah was taken into custody again as an ICE detainee. He's been fighting deportation for the last 11 months, while federal taxpayers have spent nearly $19,000 housing him in the jail.

‘The system is broken'

Butler County is the only jail in Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana that has a Memorandum of Understanding with ICE. The agreement gives specially-trained corrections officers the authority to perform certain functions as an immigration officer within the jail.

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones wants to have the same powers outside the jail. He blamed federal lawmakers for not sufficiently addressing illegal immigration.

"The system is broken," Jones said.

He said he believes President Donald Trump will reform the system and give local law enforcement agencies the training and permission to enforce federal immigration law.

Trump's plan also includes building a wall on the Mexican border, hiring 15,000 border agents and immigration officers and making all undocumented residents a priority for enforcement.

Miguel Garcia, who has owned a market near the jail for 15 years, said the most vulnerable undocumented immigrants are the ones with deep roots in the community.

"They're really scared," he said. "They have family here. They have kids. They don't want to be deported and leave their kids here."

Jones said he's hopeful the issue will get the attention and funding that it needs. However, he said the government hasn't hired enough immigration judges to process the huge backlog of cases that determine if detainees are removed or released.

"In the meantime, we all lose," Jones said.

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